U softball falters in weekend series

by Michael Dougherty

The top of the order in softball is supposed to produce the majority of runs. Minnesota, however, got a first-hand look over the weekend at what happens when the leaders struggle.
In a match-up of the first and second place teams in the Big Ten, Michigan proved that its No. 2 ranking was well deserved, sweeping the Gophers 6-3, 9-0 and 6-5 at the Bierman Softball Complex.
Minnesota’s (33-11, 7-4 in the Big Ten) first four hitters combined to go 5-for-37, a .135 average, and recorded only three runs scored and two RBIs. Those four hitters — Steph Midthun, Laura Peters, Morgan Holden and Shannon Beeler — came into the series hitting a combined .407.
But Michigan pitcher Sara Griffin kept the foursome guessing by showing excellent control. She painted the corners with countless curveballs and fastballs, striking out 17 batters.
The senior worked all 19 innings of the series, and is undefeated this season with a record of 21-0.
“She’s a very good pitcher,” Gophers coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien said. “She throws that curveball a lot, and we swung and missed at it a lot.”
Michigan (34-3, 11-0) also showed the Gophers why it leads the Big Ten in hitting by batting .386 as a team in the series.
Coming into the showdown, Michigan and the Gophers were 1-2 in the conference in hitting, at .344 and .343 respectively.
The Wolverines were led by junior first baseman Traci Conrad, who went 8-for-12 with four runs scored and three RBIs.
“I’m just going up there and hitting good pitches and making contact,” the All-American said. “It’s just taking the right pitches, I guess.”
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins called Conrad a “bona fide hitter” and was happy to see her come out of a recent slump that had dropped her average almost 15 points.
Conrad was encouraged as well, saying she felt more comfortable than she has the last few games.
Michigan’s designated player Catherine Davie also provided some punch, belting two homers and driving in seven runs in the series.
In Sunday’s finale, Michigan scored all six runs with two outs, which seemed to frustrate the Gophers.
“We had opportunities to get out of innings and we didn’t take advantage of it,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “A good team will beat you with that.”
The Gophers jumped out to a 3-1 lead after Beeler fouled off four straight pitches from Griffin, and took a 0-2 pitch over the left field fence. The solo shot was her eighth home run of the year.
However, that lead didn’t last very long. In the top of the fifth, Conrad singled up the middle off of pitcher Steph Klaviter. After two ground ball outs, Griffin singled to left to score Conrad, and Davie followed with her third homer of the year.
Senior Wendy Logue entered the game in relief of Klaviter and got the third out.
But Michigan and its two-out attack struck again in the top of the sixth, when, with a runner on first, the Wolverines’ Kellyn Tate hit a blooper between the shortstop Beeler and the center fielder Midthun.
There seemed to be a lack of communication between the two because they both could have gotten to the ball. Michigan’s Skeeter Gentile then roped a Logue curve ball into the left-center field gap to drive in two, upping the score to 6-3.
In the bottom of the seventh, Holden grounded out and Beeler struck out swinging, bringing third baseman Amber Hegland to the plate. After Hegland drew her fourth walk of the series, catcher Erin Brophy hit an 0-1 pitch over the left field wall to pull the Gophers within one.
But Lara Severson grounded out to end Minnesota’s chances to salvage a win.
“We’ve gotten away with making mistakes and still winning,” Hutchins said. “And that’s because our team totally believes they can always win the game. They are never on their heels.”
In Saturday’s second game of the doubleheader, Michigan scored six in the bottom of the fifth, ending the game when the eight-run rule took effect.
The deciding runs were scored when Gophers freshman Rayny Camacho relieved Logue and immediately threw a wild pitch which scored Tate. Davie them came to the plate and knocked a Camacho offering out of the park.
In the first game, the Gophers shot themselves in the feet, giving up four unearned runs on three errors.
With the score tied 3-3 in the top of the sixth and one out, the usually reliable Beeler and Hegland made back-to-back errors on plays that should have ended the inning.
Michigan took advantage of those mishaps to push across three runs.
“This was not Minnesota softball,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “I don’t think we took care of the ball. Things that we know how to do time in and time out, we didn’t do. We just didn’t execute on offense or defense.”