Ann Arbor — The Michigan softball team, in its first NCAA Tournament game on Friday, offered a snapshot of what has made the Wolverines such a threat during the regular season and an expected contender in the postseason.
While the Wolverines' bats weren't quite what coach Carol Hutchins had hoped, they found a way to score runs, taking advantage of two Oakland errors — unusual for a team that prides itself on defense — and six walks. The Golden Grizzlies hit two batters.
Behind a five-run third inning and stellar 10-strikeout work from Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Megan Betsa, the third-ranked Wolverines advanced with an efficient, methodical 9-1 victory in six innings over Oakland at Alumni Field. It ended on the eight-run mercy rule.
Michigan will play No. 2-seed California at 4 p.m. today. California beat Pittsburgh in the first game Friday.
Oakland coach Connie Miner said it is a difficult task to pitch to Michigan, which boasts a deep lineup from top to bottom.
"I think they're, if not the top offensive team in the country, I don't know who would think they're not," Miner said.
The Wolverines have won 21 consecutive games and are 52-6. Oakland drops to 27-23. Oakland plays Pittsburgh in the second game at 9 p.m. The loser of that game is eliminated from the tournament.
"Big innings have been the way we roll, but honestly, we just have to find a way to make things happen," Hutchins said. "We took advantage of some walks, some mistakes they made, and we were able to put some things together. I don't think we swung particularly well, but we found ways to score runs."
The Wolverines held Oakland to one hit. Michigan, which swept the Big Ten regular season and won the Big Ten tournament, have allowed eight runs the last 10 games.
"The Oakland program has been down a little bit, so it's pretty exciting for us to be here and play on this kind of stage," Miner said. "I think we got a little, maybe, caught up in that. We did a nice job, but a couple critical mistakes really hurt us. If we would have been a little cleaner defensively, it would have been a different game."
Betsa had a stellar outing, striking out 10 and giving up one hit, a home run, through four innings. She has allowed only five hits over her last six games, including a no-hitter at Maryland. Oakland's Laura Pond had the solo home run.
"I just wanted to come back stronger and attack the next batter," Betsa said. "I wanted to forget about that pitch. She was off the plate, and I didn't get it in enough. She got a good hit off a good pitch."
By design, Haylie Wagner also pitched for UM. She pitched two innings and struck out two.
"I thought Megan pitched well," Hutchins said. "She gave up one hit that was a well-hit ball. She was fine, came back the next inning, and was outstanding. My goal going into today was make sure we get both our pitchers in the game and a chance to experience the postseason environment in front of a packed house."
Michigan took a 2-0 lead over the Grizzlies in the second when Nikki Wald scored on an error. Sierra Lawrence hit a grounder to right, and the throw sailed into left, allowing the run to come in.
The Grizzlies pulled within a run, 2-1, in the third on the lead-off home run by Pond. But the Wolverines expanded its lead in the bottom of the inning.
Lindsay Montemarano, who had two hits, doubled to score Lauren Sweet to increase the lead to 3-1, a run was walked in, and Lawrence was hit by a pitch with bases loaded to make it 5-1.
The Wolverines built a 7-1 lead when Sierra Romero hit a two-run single to left to conclude the five-run third inning.
"It's great to get an opening-round win," Hutchins said, chalking up the team's early stiffness to some jitters. "As I tell my kids, of all the opening rounds we've ever had on Alumni Field, I can never remember one there's just not a little edgy excitement, a little uptightness. It's normal. I thought we had a little bit of that, and we had to work through it."
But this is a seasoned team playing at home before a supportive crowd. Betsa said the Wolverines maintained a normal pre-game schedule, allowing them to keep a typical game rhythm. She said she was energetic the first inning pitching, as she usually is before settling into a groove. Montemarano said the Wolverines are used to playing before a full house and were more excited than nervous for their first tournament game.
The game ended when Michigan reached an eight-run advantage after five innings. Miner said if the Grizzlies had cleaned up their game, things might have been different.
"They knew (after the game), I didn't have to say anything," Miner said. "They didn't play Oakland softball. They were disappointed with themselves they let it get away. Our errors let innings continue. We make those plays, we might still be playing, at least through the end of the game."
Ann Arbor Regional
Where: Alumni Field, Ann Arbor
Format: Double elimination
Tickets: $12 chairback, $10 reserved bleacher, $8 general admission outfield bleacher.
Game 1: California 11, Pittsburgh 3
Game 2: Michigan 9, Oakland 1
Game 3: California vs. Michigan, 4 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 4: Pittsburgh vs. Oakland, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 6 p.m. (ESPNU)