It was a game Michigan should have cruised through. It was a game that Michigan needed to cruise through.
But it was a game Eastern Michigan fought through.
On Tuesday, the No. 23 Michigan softball team (13-5 Big Ten, 34-15 overall) hosted the Eagles for a second time this season in a nonconference game. The Wolverines needed only five innings to defeat Eastern Michigan, 10-2, in March, but barely eked a 4-2 win in extra innings.
The Wolverines, entering the game after losing two of three to Illinois, have freshman right-hander Sara Driesenga to thank for her walk-off home run in the ninth inning that saved Michigan from being upset.
“We had to persevere and play defense until we could get something going,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said.
After being shut out by Illinois in the final game of the series, Michigan struck first against the Eagles in the second inning.
Freshman catcher Lauren Sweet hit an RBI single to plate fellow freshman Haylie Wagner, who reached base on a fielder’s choice.
Despite driving in an early run, the Wolverines stranded Sweet and junior shortstop Amy Knapp to make up two of the 12 runners left on base in the game.
Michigan has only stranded more than 12 runners once this season. The Wolverines left 14 runners on base in an eight-inning loss to the Fighting Illini on Saturday.
But Eastern Michigan would answer back in the fifth inning, when Kaylee Tolliver crushed a two-run home run to give the Eagles the lead off of left-hander Haylie Wagner.
The Eagles would relinquish the lead in the same inning though, when junior second baseman Ashley Lane drove in senior center-fielder Bree Evans from second base. Michigan was, once again, unable to carry the momentum, and the Wolverines walked away with a tie game.
Wagner had a standout game in the circle, though, and ensured that the score remained tied by showing a strong command of the ball. Wagner totaled a career-best 13 strikeouts in Tuesday’s game, allowing only six hits.
“Sometimes she tries to pitch and sometimes she just pitches,” Hutchins said of her young pitcher. “When she lets go of her mind and just trusts everything that she practices, she’s good. She’s a little inconsistent in that area, but she had a lot of great pitches today.”
Eastern Michigan’s pitcher Lauren Wells also had a spectacular game, striking out seven in eight innings of work and holding the Wolverines to two runs before the ninth inning.
“She pitched really well against us,” Hutchins said. “I have to give Eastern (Michigan) credit. I thought they really played well, and they played hard and they played fearless.”
Michigan came into the ninth inning with senior first baseman Amanda Chidester up to bat, who was walked. Hutchins thought about having Driesenga lay down a sacrifice bunt who struggled in her previous at-bats to move Chidester over to second.
“I actually expected them to throw a ball down in the dirt like they had, but I didn’t call anything,” Hutchins said. “I just told her that if they were going to sit back like they had been sitting.”
Instead, Driesenga crushed her sixth home run of the season into the outfield of adjacent Ray Fisher Stadium.
“I just go up there with the mentality to hit it hard every time,” Driesenga said.
For Hutchins, Tuesday marked a change in the mentality of the Wolverines after struggling two weeks in a row against Big Ten teams in the middle of the standings.
After losing two series to Minnesota and Illinois, the Wolverines had lessened their lead atop the Big Ten to a half game above Nebraska. With Wisconsin and Purdue — both in the race for the conference title — coming up, Michigan needed to take advantage of an easier opponent to build confidence, and Hutchins was pleased with the effort.
“We just decided May 1 we start over,” Hutchins said. “Reboot. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past.”