It was the ending that no one saw coming for the No. 2 Michigan softball team. With the bases loaded and only one out in the bottom of the seventh inning for Kentucky, it seemed simultaneously inevitable and impossible.
As soon as the Wildcats’ Annie Rowland’s soft blooper started its arc downward, everyone knew the game was over. Kentucky won 2-1, upsetting the Wolverines on their home field for the second day in a row to knock them out of the NCAA postseason.
Entering the seventh inning, Michigan held a 1-0 lead, but by the time Kentucky put its bats away, the damage was done.
“They made a lot of great plays out there,” junior third baseman Amanda Chidester said. “Everyone came ready to play. It was going to come down to the end. And it did.”
Michigan (18-2 Big Ten, 53-6 overall) grabbed the early lead after freshman catcher Caitlin Blanchard scored sophomore Jaclyn Crummey on a two-out error in the fourth.
Kentucky pitcher Rachel Riley tossed a one-hitter, closing out the top of the seventh by putting away three straight Michigan batters.
But it never seemed like enough, even with senior pitcher Jordan Taylor on the mound for the Wolverines.
“Jordan was pitching really well, but one run against a team like that offers no comfort zone,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “There’s a reason we play seven innings.”
Despite playing the NCAA Regional finale at home in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines were the away team Sunday afternoon, giving the Wildcats (14-9 SEC, 39-14) one last chance to score.
And they took it.
Taylor struck out 10 heading into the final inning. She needed three outs in order for Michigan to force a tiebreaker game for the NCAA Super Regionals bid.
“I was preparing my mid-game speech,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said about heading into the bottom half of the seventh inning.
But Wildcat Megan Aull, the first batter to face Taylor, sparked something for Kentucky. She hit a home run over the right-field wall, squeezing it just inside the foul pole to tie the score, 1-1.
Taylor tried to pitch low against her next few batters to prevent another long ball, but she missed the strike zone eight pitches in a row to put two runners on. A hit-by-pitch followed, loading the bases for Kentucky with no outs on the board.
“I’m very impressed with Kentucky,” Hutchins said. “We were going to make them swing if they were going to beat us.”
Rowland must have received that message.
Taylor rallied back with a strikeout against pinch hitter Lauren Cumbess, putting new life back into Alumni Field. But Rowland — who was 0-2 on the day — connected for a blooper over senior first baseman Dorian Shaw’s head to bring the game-winning run — and NCAA Super Regional bid — in for Kentucky.
This will be the Wildcats’ first NCAA Super Regional bid in program history.
The game began as a pitcher’s duel, with Riley and Taylor each not allowing much movement around the bases. The Wildcats were able to put two runners on to threaten the Wolverines, but Blanchard came up big for Michigan to throw out runners in both the first and fifth innings.
After the Wolverines’ unearned run put them up 1-0 in the top of the fourth, sophomore second baseman Ashley Lane was the only batter to earn a hit, breaking Riley’s no-hitter in the sixth.
“What we’ve been working on this entire game … is just putting the ball in play, putting it on the ground,” Lane said. “At that specific at bat, I knew I had been popping up a lot so I just thought to myself to put it on the ground. Getting base runners, as Hutch has said, was the most important thing we could have done in that game.”
But a lack of base runners, followed by a seventh-inning threat by Kentucky caused the Wolverines’ season to come to an unexpected halt.
The Wolverines will now say goodbye to six seniors, including Shaw and Taylor, whose careers have made history in the Michigan softball program.
“We just have to fight every day,” Chidester said after the game. “You can’t take anything for granted — just got to keep going.”