Softball wins first-ever Big Ten title

by Mark Heller

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It is a widespread belief in softball — especially in the postseason — that good pitching tends to beat good hitting.
Consequently, part of the beauty of postseason play is that every pitch, every hit and every mistake become magnified in importance, because there is much more at stake than during the regular season.
This all held true throughout the Big Ten championships over the weekend, especially in the title game, where Minnesota (46-18) upset top-seed Michigan (51-11-1), 3-2 to win its first-ever conference championship.
With the win, the Gophers received an automatic bid to the NCAA regional championships May 20-23. They’ll face Creighton in the first round on Thursday in Los Angeles.
Wolverines’ sophomore pitching sensation Marie Barda threw one bad pitch to Gophers All-American Shannon Beeler — the only bad pitch she made all game — in the top of the sixth inning in Saturday’s championship game.
And Beeler doesn’t miss mistakes.
“I worked really hard early in the game. I hit most of my spots and all my pitches were working,” Barda said. “(In the last two innings) their batters got hold of my speed.”
“She was pitching me inside all day and she’s pitched me inside in past series,” Beeler said. “I was ready to turn on the inside pitch. That was the one pitch I was looking for, and she brought it.”
Barda brought it, and Beeler crushed it over the left field fence for a two-run home run, tying the game at 2-2 and setting up Dana Ballard’s seventh-inning heroics.
Michelle Bennett led off with a single. Amy Hafemeyer came in as a pinch runner and moved to second on a passed ball. Barda struck out Morgan Holden and Erin Brophy, but Ballard pinch-hit for Erin Mooney.
“I took the first pitch, a strike on the outside corner,” Ballard said. “We had been talking all day to be aggressive, swing the bat and put the ball in play. As a pinch hitter, that’s what I was trying to do. I got a pitch that was up and dropped it.”
She got jammed on the pitch, but fought it off just enough to drop between the shortstop and left fielder. Hafemeyer scored and Minnesota held off Michigan in the seventh to win its first conference championship and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Regional championships May 20-23.
Michigan had won 14 in a row and 32 of the last 33 meetings against Minnesota, and 19 in a row in Ann Arbor.
“We came out here prepared to play,” Gophers co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “The pitching was phenomenal, the hitting was clutch when we needed it and the defense played great.”
Just as important as Beeler’s home run in the championship game was Michelle Harrison’s relief pitching.
Steph Klaviter (22-9), who was brilliant against Penn State and in the first game against Michigan, was roughed up in the first inning of the championship game. She was pounded for three hits and two runs in one-third of an inning.
So Bernstein brought in Harrison (9-7), who used her variety of off-speed pitches perfectly. She went six innings, giving up four hits and four walks, but no runs.
“You go with each batter the same way,” Harrison said. “It’s a game inside of a game.
“Playing a team like Michigan, you expect to have runners on. They’re a very talented hitting team. You just have to stay tough and confident, and go at every batter with the same mindset.”
Minnesota got two runs in the top of the seventh to beat Michigan 2-1 earlier on Saturday to advance to the championship game.
An RBI double by Morgan Holden and a sacrifice fly by Ballard capped the two-run comeback. Klaviter went the distance, throwing a five-hitter and giving up one run while throwing 50 of 77 pitches for strikes.
“The name of the game was our offense was on the defensive,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “We never came out swinging against them. We had one good cut all day, and that was (Melissa Gentile’s) home run, and it wasn’t enough.”
Game one was yet another one-run game. (Minnesota has now won six games in a row, all of them by one run.) Beeler hit a solo home run in the bottom of the first, but Penn State got a run in the top of the third for a 1-1 tie.
The Gophers forged ahead in the fifth on an RBI single by Steph Midthun, who then cut down Colleen Kersey at home trying to score in the top of the sixth. Midthun fired a perfect strike from center field, and Kersey collided with Meghan Smith, who held on to the ball to preserve the win.
“I love it,” Midthun said. “When I see a girl rounding third and heading towards home, it’s one of the biggest thrills.”
The same can be said for the rest of the Gophers, some of whom were on the 1996 team that lost to Michigan in the championship game. They played three nearly perfect games in the tournament and got some long-awaited revenge on Michigan, this time with much more at stake.
“We were really focused on Minnesota and didn’t spend a lot of time on Michigan,” Bernstein said. “I think that really helped us and we were really together, had a lot of fun and took care of each other.”