Sunday, May 22, 2016

Michigan's four-run fifth inning makes the difference as super regionals loom

              Photo Credit: Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography

On a warm, windy Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan's bats were alive early, but its 4-run fifth inning turned out to be the difference in its 6-2 win over Notre Dame in the NCAA Softball regional final.

Despite home runs from second baseman Sierra Romero (first) and centerfielder Sierra Lawrence (third), Michigan stranded five runners on base in the previous four innings, but in the blink of an eye, momentum began to shift.

With a 2-1 lead and no outs, Notre Dame pitcher Rachel Nasland's throw dragged first baseman Micaela Arizmendi off the bag and away from her glove as Romero stopped at first base.

Left fielder Kelly Christner came up to the plate and Nasland threw a wild pitch on the first play as Romero stole second in the process.

After Christner's single, Kelsey Susalla's fly out and Tera Blanco's walk to load the bases with one out, back-to-back two-run doubles from Aidan Falk and Lindsay Montemarano opened the floodgates as Michigan took a 6-1 to the bottom of the fifth inning.

Manometer saw the runs scored as a never-ending grind to persevere even if the odds are against her in any at-bat.

"It doesn't matter how batters are on base and we have to approach every batter the same way," Montemarano said. "That's helped me this season because I can't control the outcome and have been more aggressive, so I was trying to drive something very hard."

Megan Betsa (26-3) tossed a complete game with nine strikeouts for Michigan and picked up the win, while Notre Dame's Rachel Nasland (16-5) took the loss with six runs allowed in 4.1 innings.

Game Recap:

Michigan opened up the scoring in the top of the first on Romero's 19th home run of the season on a 2-2 count from Nasland and crushed the ball to left field near the Alumni Field scoreboard.

Notre Dame's only offense in the bottom portion of the inning came on Karley Wester's single with one out and a stolen base (22nd of the season) to second, but Betsa would mow down Arizendi on the strikes to end the first.

After the Irish failed to score in the bottom of the second, Sierra Lawrence delivered a solo home run to left field to begin the top half of the third for the Wolverines, but left runners stranded on first and second to end the inning.

Down two runs and desperate for offense in the bottom of the third inning, Karley Wester's solo HR (third of the season) cut the Michigan lead in half.

The tables began to turn for Michigan in the bottom of the fourth after Arizmendi's single and move to second base via a sacrifice bunt from Brooks.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins gave Betsa a pep talk on the mound and began to find her comfort zone with back-to-back strikeouts on Sullivan and Africano to end the inning. 

"[Carol] came out there and told me that my body speed looked slow and that I wasn't whipping my pitches and that is where I normally get in trouble," Betsa said.

"When I spun the ball more through the zone, we were able to get the result we wanted."

Ali Wester's single in the bottom of the fifth would be the final run in Notre Dame's season as Betsa retired the side in the sixth and seventh innings to secure Michigan's trip to the round of 16.

Looking Ahead:

Michigan (49-5) will be one of eight hosts in the super regional round, beginning May 28 at 3 p.m. on ESPN against the No. 15-seeded Missouri Tigers (42-14) in a best-of-three series.

Missouri won its regional and went 3-0 with victories over BYU (9-0 in five innings on May 19) and Nebraska twice (8-0 in six innings and 9-0 on May 20 and 21, respectively).

Both teams played in the Judi Garman Tournament in Fullerton, CA on March 3 as Michigan defeated Missouri 13-0 in five innings behind a four RBI performance from Romero.

Hutchins knows the Tigers were without their star pitcher Danielle Baumgartner due to a head injury sustained in batting practice on March 2.

"The day we played [Missouri] was the day after their star pitcher was hit in the head by the ball and they were down and out," Hutchins said. "We are not playing that team, that team is gone. Missouri is a very a good and there are no bad teams at this stage." 

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Follow Geno Green on Twitter @TheGenoGreen.