Michigan softball team rallies for 3-2 win over Kentucky in NCAA regional opener
This story was updated with Michigan's second-round opponent.
By Matt Slovin
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- One Michigan softball pitcher bailed out another in Friday’s opening game of the NCAA Tournament’s Louisville Regional, but not in the usual manner.
After ace Haylie Wagner finally faltered after pitching six scoreless innings by surrendering the Wolverines’ 1-0 lead in the top of the seventh, fellow freshman hurler Sara Driesenga, playing as the designated hitter, delivered a two-out, walk-off double for a 3-2 win.
It was everything Michigan needed to avoid allowing history to repeat itself. Last season, Kentucky swept host Michigan right out of its own regional.
“We came in and said, ‘We’re not losing to Kentucky,’ “ said senior third baseman Stephanie Kirkpatrick, who knocked in the game’s first run. “That was a goal of ours, and we met it so we’re happy about that.”
But it looked like the Wildcats (29-29) would hand the Wolverines (40-15) their first loss of the double-elimination event when the wheels fell off in the top of the seventh.
A single to start the frame followed by a sacrifice bunt and another base hit put Kentucky runners on the corners. Then, Wagner got a pinch hitter to strike out, one of four on the day, and the Wolverines were an out away from getting their vengeance.
But a fielder’s choice knotted the game at one and Kentucky’s star hitter, Brittany Cervantes, reached on an error to give the Wildcats a 2-1 lead.
“I thought we stayed really cool and calm, even in the seventh when we gave it up,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “It’s easy to get down because they’re kids.”
Instead, Michigan started a rally of its own in its half of the final frame.
Sophomore right fielder Lyndsay Doyle smacked a single to center field. But the Wildcats erased the lead runner on a fielder’s choice by centerfielder Bree Evans in the next at bat. Sophomore left fielder Nicole Sappingfield ripped another hit to center, though, and the Wolverines were in business with one out.
Kentucky starter Chanda Bell managed to get first baseman Amanda Chidester to pop out in foul territory, bringing Driesenga to the plate with two away.
After working the count to full, Hutchins walked over from her perch behind third base to talk things over with Driesenga, who was hitless on the day despite a 28-game on-base streak.
“(Hutchins) said it didn’t matter what I did in my last at bats,“ Driesenga said. “They probably weren’t my best at bats of the year, but she said just to forget about it and that the only thing that mattered was that next pitch.”
Added Hutchins: “I told her to attack it.”
And that’s exactly what Driesenga did. The pitcher tossed one inside and Driesenga turned on it, sending Hutchins’ arms flailing in the third-base coaches’ box.
Evans scored with ease, and Sappingfield, the winning run, wasn’t far behind. When the dust settled, Driesenga stood triumphantly on second base, and Michigan was right where it wanted to be, but couldn’t get to last season -- the winners’ bracket of the four-team regional.
“I told the kids to enjoy the victory,” Hutchins said. “But we don’t want to get to high — we have a game tomorrow.”
Next up for the Wolverines is tournament host Louisville (54-3), which used a three-run home run by Alicja Wolny in the bottom of the seventh inning to get past Valparaiso, 6-4. Michigan plays the Cardinals at 3 p.m. Saturday (ESPN), followed by an elimination game between Kentucky and Valpo.
The second game of the first day began shortly after Michigan won in exciting fashion, but the team bus didn’t stick around.
“We’re going back to the hotel to focus on us,” Hutchins said.
When asked if she’d let the team watch the nationally televised game to learn its Saturday opponent, the veteran coach was undecided.
Rather, she was thrilled that her two freshmen pitchers had allowed the Wolverines to survive and advance. One of them just happened to be in the batter’s box.