Hit-by-pitch sends Michigan softball team to NCAA regional final
This file was updated with details and reaction.
By Matt Slovin
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Pitching in the biggest game of her young career on Saturday against No. 7 Louisville, Michigan softball ace Haylie Wagner appeared well beyond her years for six innings.
The next three outs, however, proved a bit more treacherous. For the second straight day, Wagner took a shutout into the seventh inning only to surrender the lead.
But when the Wolverines failed to walk off with the game in the bottom of the frame, as they had against Kentucky on Friday, Wagner wiped her brow and trotted back out to the circles for extra innings.
There, she looked unhittable once again, and her teammates rallied for another win, downing the Cardinals, 2-1, in eight innings.
This time, the hero was pinch-hitter Caitlin Blanchard -- her right elbow, to be precise.
With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, the offering from Cardinal pitcher Chelsea Leonard grazed Blanchard, allowing the winning run, junior second baseman Ashley Lane, to saunter home. But not without controversy fitting of a weekend at Ulmer Stadium where each game played has been decided in walk-off fashion.
The tense final inning began innocently enough for Michigan when designated hitter and Friday’s clutch game-winner, Sara Driesenga, grounded out. That was followed immediately by a base hit by Lane. After a Wagner foul out, junior shortstop Amy Knapp singled to right field, allowing Lane to move safely from first base to third base -- or so it appeared.
Home plate umpire Danny Bowman ruled that the tag was applied to Lane just after she touched the bag. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, too, gestured that the eventual winning run was safe. The video replay didn’t agree, though, showing Lane should’ve been called out.
Hutchins admitted that she hadn’t seen the replay, but said she heard the disputes of the pro-Louisville crowd loud and clear.
Louisville coach Sandy Pearsall admitted she hadn’t seen the replay either.
“Sometimes I don’t want to look at that because it’s just going to make me a little bit more mad,” Pearsall said.
After a walk to load the bases, Blanchard stepped into the batter’s box and stood her ground as Leonard miscalculated on a drop ball, hitting the batter.
“(Blanchard) stood right in there and took the (hit by pitch) and that’s something we haven’t had a lot of this season,” Hutchins said. “We get out of the way too much for me.”
Hutchins went on to describe the second game as “the biggest game in the regional.”
“(This win) doesn’t guarantee a thing, though,” Hutchins said. “We still have a lot of softball left to play.”
To guarantee a trip to the NCAA Super Regionals next weekend, the Wolverines will need to win one more game on Sunday. And because of Saturday’s thriller, they’ll have two cracks at it.
If Michigan does lose Sunday’s first final Sunday (1 p.m., ESPN), it will have another chance against the same opponent later in the day for a chance to advance past the regional stage for the eighth time in nine years.
The win, Wagner’s 31st of the season, moves her into a tie for the most by a Wolverine freshman since Jordan Taylor did it in 2008. She’ll have a chance to surpass Taylor on Sunday, though the starter for the first potential clinching game has yet to be announced.
“Nobody likes to have to come back from the loser’s bracket,” Hutchins said. “It’s pretty taxing on your pitching. But it’s certainly not impossible.”
Impossible? No. But with Wagner, who surrendered just three hits -- sitting down batters in rapid succession -- improbable.