Spartans predict bright future after semifinal loss to OSU

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The Michigan State softball team rallied again late in the Big Ten Tournament, but this time fell short pulling off another upset.

The No. 7-seed Spartans fought back from a four-run deficit, scoring three in the bottom of the sixth, but fell, 4-3, to Ohio State in the semifinals Saturday afternoon at Alumni Field. It was the Spartans’ 15th one-run game this season — they are 7-8 in those games.

The No. 3 seed Buckeyes will face top-seed Minnesota in the championship Saturday night, and the winner earns an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State’s run in the tournament, which included upsetting No. 2 Michigan in the quarterfinals, put an exclamation point on the Spartans’ most productive season in 10 years.  They are 31-22, the most program wins since 2007 (33-26), and are expected to play in the NIT that begins next week.

While they made a strong effort late in the game, it was too much for the Spartans to overcome stranding 14 runners against the Buckeyes and their strong pitching.

“I think it was mental fatigue, I do,” MSU coach Jacquie Joseph said after her team played its third tournament game in three days while the top-four seeds had first-round byes. “That’s part of being a very good team. Part of this whole thing is, you take these steps and step one is get a higher seed so you don’t have to play that extra game. So step one is finishing in the top four so you don’t have to play that extra game.

“It just showed we’re close, that we’re not there yet. … We hit a lot of balls hard. … I think it would be disrespectful to not give full credit to Ohio State. They have a really, really good pitching staff, and that team finished third in the conference. We finished seventh. They were supposed to win. You have to give them credit. They got into jam after jam after jam, and they got out of jam after jam after jam. It’s a little bit of mental fatigue, but it’s also a lot of Ohio State.”

The Buckeyes took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning on Lilli Piper’s two-run home run to center. The teams remained scoreless until the Buckeyes built a 4-0 lead in the top of the sixth when Emily Clark had a two-run home run.

In the interim, the Spartans stranded 11 baserunners — two in each of the first four innings, and three in the bottom of the fifth.

They finally scored in the bottom of the sixth on Lea Foerster’s double that scored Melanie Baccay, and the rally caps came out. It was Foerster’s third double of the tournament and fourth RBI. Kaitlyn Eveland cut the deficit to 4-2 on an RBI single. Ohio State walked Lexi White to load the bases and pitch to Ebonee Echols, who had been struggling in the tournament. Echols made it 4-3 with a single before the Buckeyes got out of the inning with the bases loaded.

“We came out here ready to play,” Foerster said. “I don’t know if it was mental fatigue or nerves, but we had a lot of opportunities to score and we didn’t capitalize on them and at the end of the day that’s why we lost.”

That the Spartans made a late surge came as no surprise. Michigan State won its first two Big Ten tournament games with late-game fireworks. The Spartans scored four in the sixth inning to come from behind in an 8-7 victory over Indiana in the first round Thursday night. And against Michigan in the quarterfinals, they scored three runs in the top of the seventh and held on for a 5-4 victory.

The Spartans still have postseason play now that they’re in the new NIT tournament. They will learn their destination late Sunday after the NCAA Tournament selection show. Michigan will find out where it will play in the NCAA Tournament.

Joseph and her young team continued to build on their rising stock with this Big Ten tournament performance. The Spartans lose only one senior, Sarah Gutknecht, and return a talented group.

“We never said die even when we were down four (to OSU),” Joseph said. “We haven’t said die all year. I’m super proud of this group of kids. They changed the legacy at Michigan State softball right now. We haven’t been good in a long time. We’re a good team. We’re not a very good team. A very good team would have found a way to win that game. We’re a good team.

“I’m very much looking forward to playing in the new NIT Tournament. I think it’s a phenomenal opportunity. It’s been a long time coming. A lot of people worked very hard for a long time to create it for teams like us, teams that are good and close but not quite good enough for the NCAA Tournament. I’m super glad that I don’t have to say goodbye today. I actually like these kids a lot. We’re having a good time, and we’re still growing.”

The MSU players have said the past few days that the program is ready to take the next step. They took a big step by upsetting Michigan.

“I don’t know if I would even say it’s close,” pitcher Bridgette Rainey said. “I think this weekend shows we’re right there, and we’re going to keep building on it. I’m looking forward to seeing what we do in this upcoming couple weeks in this NIT. It’s going to be exciting to keep it going and see what we can do, and I think that will show us also where we’re at.”

Big Ten tournament

Saturday's results

Semifinals

Minnesota 6, Illinois 5

Ohio State 4, Michigan State 3

Championship

Minnesota 6, Ohio State 0