While fans were still trickling into Goodman Diamond in Madison for Sunday’s series finale between the Michigan softball team and Wisconsin, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins was already making changes to her lineup card.
Sophomore Stephanie Speierman, tapped by Hutchins as the starter, used up her very short leash early, retiring just one batter and allowing two to reach before being replaced.
It was a move that would prove to be fruitful for the Wolverines, as senior hurler Jordan Taylor — fresh off an injury — prevented any further Badger offense after the first-inning run charged to Speierman. After routing Wisconsin on Saturday, 9-1, Taylor and No. 2 Michigan (12-2 Big Ten, 44-4 overall) escaped with a 2-1 victory in the series finale.
Saturday’s win marked Hutchins’ 1,200th at Michigan and allowed the Wolverines to remain in hot pursuit of Big Ten leader Indiana, who swept Iowa to maintain its narrow first-place margin.
In the series opener, Michigan cruised to a victory, utilizing a seven-run fourth inning to defeat Wisconsin (6-10, 26-21).
After the rocky first inning, both pitchers began rolling through the opposing lineup and the game seemed like a pitchers’ dual, with the Badgers leading 1-0 heading into the fifth.
But that’s when the Wolverine offense finally managed to get to Wisconsin starter Cassandra Darrah. Consecutive singles from freshman right fielder Lyndsay Doyle, who went 3-for-3 on the day, and junior center fielder Bree Evans put Michigan in prime position to tie the game. And streaking senior Alycia Ryan did just that, ripping a base hit up the middle, scoring Doyle.
“(Doyle’s) done a nice job all year in the nine position,” Hutchins said. “She helps us turn the lineup over. She’s a great athlete, and she’s done a nice job for us.”
The next batter, junior third baseman Amanda Chidester, followed suit, poking a single through a gap to give the Wolverines a 2-1 lead.
With Taylor on the mound looking like her usual self, the one-run cushion would be all that Michigan would need. Wisconsin managed just two more hits the rest of the way, eventually going down in order in the seventh inning.
“I’m definitely back to 100 percent,” Taylor said. “I’m really excited to come back.”
For Taylor, whether she is starting or coming out of the bullpen, the approach is similar. Rather than wait for an opposing batter to make a mistake, she tries to force them into one. And though Taylor will likely start most of the remaining games on the schedule, knowing that such a force on the mound is just waiting to enter the game can be quite the confidence boost for Michigan.
“I’ve always felt comfortable going into games (in relief),” Taylor said. “ It’s not too much of a different mindset — just always attacking the batter and going after them.”
A busy week awaits Michigan as it returns home to Alumni Field. On Tuesday, Eastern Michigan provides a respite from the rigors of conference play for the Wolverines before the Big Ten slate resumes Wednesday with a double header against Ohio State.
Despite the Eagles being winless against Big Ten opponents this season, Hutchins doesn’t expect anything less than her team’s best when the two teams meet.
“(Eastern) is a chance to compete and wear the Michigan jersey,” Hutchins said. “I hope they’ll be psyched about it.”
And though the Buckeyes bring up the rear in the Big Ten standings, no opponent is to be overlooked this late in the season by Michigan. Just seven games remain on the schedule, and any losses from here on out will be judged particularly harsh by the NCAA selection committee before it unveils the regional matchups on May 15.
“The bottom line is it doesn’t matter where anybody is ranked,” Hutchins said. “Ohio State’s a very dangerous team. They are very athletic. They have a lot of really fine players. They’re in our way.
“If we treat them any different than any other team, that would not be a good Michigan approach. (We) expect it to be very difficult.”
Despite the Wolverines’ sure inclusion in the field of 64, the luxury of hosting tournament games in Ann Arbor and earning a top seed is one that is yet to be secured. But with Taylor — the program’s crown jewel — back in the pitchers’ circle where she belongs, it appears Michigan may be ready to finish strong and battle Indiana for the conference crown.