Michigan softball thumps Georgia to open Super Regional

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Coach Carol Hutchins, shown here watching her team play Oakland last week, and the Michigan softball team cruised past Georgia on Thursday night in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor — The third-ranked Michigan softball team, after a dominant performance in a prime-time game Thursday against Georgia, is one victory from reaching the World Series.

Michigan backed up a four-run first inning with another four runs in the third, and stymied the Bulldogs' momentum in the middle innings to win, 10-3, in the first game of an NCAA Tournament Super Regional before 2,136 at Alumni Field. The game took two hours, 45 minutes.

The teams meet again 6 p.m. Friday in the best-of-three regional. If needed, they would play the deciding game at 9 p.m.

It was the Wolverines' 24th consecutive victory.

"I certainly liked our approach today — we're going to be starting all our games at 9 o'clock," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said during a postgame news conference that started just after midnight. "Our kids were pretty excited about playing at night. They waited all day, and they had a lot of great enthusiasm.

"We really came out attacking. That Georgia team, they're an attacking team, so I like that we came out and swung first. But as I told them in the locker room, we haven't accomplished anything yet. I thought we got a little unfocused later in the game, gave away some at bats."

Sophomore Kelly Christner sparked the first-inning fireworks with a two-run home run to center field to take an early 2-0 lead against Georgia pitcher Chelsea Wilkinson.

Michigan entered the game with a nation-best 112 home runs, also a program record.

"It's great to start with the some runs in the first inning like that. That really kept our energy going for the rest of the game," Christner said. "We came out attacking every pitch. After that we still kept going strong, so I don't think it was that big of a difference."

It was a major difference-maker because Wilkinson, who had pitched so well last weekend in the regional, was pulled and replaced by freshman Brittany Gray. Wilkinson was 3-1 in the regional with a 1.21 ERA and struck out 31 in 29 innings. She was pulled after walking in a run to give the Wolverines a 3-0 lead with one out.

"She was phenomenal in the bullpen," Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer said of Wilkinson. "I just honestly think she had too much adrenaline. Hopefully she'll settle down (Friday)."

Michigan took a 4-0 lead in the first inning when Gray hit Abby Ramirez to score Lauren Sweet.

The big hit in the inning was Christner's 20th home run of the season. Two innings later she made it four RBIs when her single to center scored Sierra Lawrence and Sierra Romero.

Megan Betsa pitched for the Wolverines, who entered the game with the nation's second-best team ERA, and offered yet another solid outing for her 30th win of the season. She had 10 strikeouts, her final coming on a 3-2 pitch to Paige Wilson in the seventh for the second out. Betsa threw 133 pitches.

"Megan gives us a chance to win when she walks on the field, and that's a very good-hitting team, a very aggressive team," Hutchins said. "I thought she certainly did her part tonight."

Betsa pitched out of a few jams late in the game. She said her focus early was the difference. Hutchins wouldn't stay if Betsa or Haylie Wagner will start the first game Friday.

"Early on I had a lot of adrenaline, so I tried to use that in a positive way instead of letting my nerves get to me," Betsa said, later adding she hopes to get win No. 31 against the Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs finally got on the board in the third inning on a sacrifice fly that scored Niaja Griffin. Michigan had an uncharacteristic two errors in the inning.

Michigan took advantage of a Georgia throwing error in the third to take a 5-1 lead, on an overthrow to first. Ramirez turned the dribbler into a double and scored Nikki Wald, who came into run for Aidan Falk. Romero's shot down the right field line scored Ramirez but the scoring didn't end there.

Christner's single to center with two out in the third scored Lawrence and Romero for an 8-1 lead.

Anna Swafford made it interesting in the fourth inning, pulling the Bulldogs within 8-3 on a two-run home run to center off Betsa with no outs.

Georgia, trailing 10-3 in the top of the fifth, threatened with runners at second and third, but Betsa got two strikeouts to close out the inning.

Michigan had another close call in the sixth when the Bulldogs had the bases loaded with two out, but Sydni Emanuel was called out for stepping on the plate while making contact with the ball.

Hutchins cautioned the Wolverines haven't accomplished anything yet, and Christner said the approach will be an easy one to embrace as the Wolverines prepare for the second game of the Super Regional.

"We have to come out strong tomorrow and basically act like there wasn't a game tonight," Christner said.



NCAA Super Regionals

Michigan vs. Georgia

Alumni Field, Ann Arbor

Thursday: Michigan 10, Georgia 3; Michigan leads best-of-three series 1-0.

Friday: Game 2 at 6 p.m. (ESPNU) and Game 3, if necessary, at 9 p.m. (ESPN2).

At stake: Winner advances to Women's College World Series.