UM's bid for title falls short to Florida, Haeger

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Oklahoma City — The Michigan softball team dug itself a big hole early, had some defensive miscues and fell short of its national championship goals in the deciding World Series game.

Senior pitcher Haylie Wagner, who had not allowed a run in 20 innings, earned her second start of the championship series but didn't look sharp from the outset.

Florida scored four runs off Wagner in one-plus innings, including three in the first — an enormous cushion for the Gators who successfully defended their national championship with a 4-1 win over Michigan on Wednesday night at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

The Wolverines (60-8) stranded eight baserunners and didn't get their first hit until the fifth inning, the only inning in which they scored. They also hit six batters, including five by Megan Betsa in relief.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said Florida pitcher Lauren Haeger, the national player of the year and voted the Most Outstanding Player of the World Series, was the difference-maker.

Haeger, who lost Game 2, came back strong.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 4, Florida 1

"They were the best team tonight," Hutchins said. "They showed up to come after us. That first inning obviously broke our back. We gave them a lot of free bases all night long. Too many. You can't do that to a team like Florida. They're too good and they have such great bat control. They can bunt it, they can poke it out of the infield.

"But really, when it comes down to it, you've gotta say Lauren Haeger. She was outstanding, very deserving of the Most Outstanding Player. I thought she was better than (Tuesday) night (in a 1-0 loss). She was on fire. She definitely took care of business."

Hutchins, whose team had five players make the All-Tournament team, said she made sure her players knew before the game and after that they were so much more than one game.

"I told them tonight doesn't define our season," she said. "Obviously we would have liked to walk out of here with the other trophy, but this has been a great team, fun to coach. They've been very committed to team, very committed to Michigan and to each other. I'm proud of them. I'm really proud of my seniors. I'm really proud of Haylie Wagner. Very proud of us."

The Wolverines last won a national title in 2005, and many of those team members made the trip from around the country to support Michigan. It was the 11th World Series appearance for the Wolverines under Hutchins, who completed her 31st season.

This was a supremely confident Michigan team, which had won 28 straight before losing the first game of the championship series to Florida. The Gators (60-7) had won both early regular-season games against the Wolverines.

They had talked freely about not only their goal of winning a national championship, but the confidence they had to achieve that goal. They talked about their chemistry and trust, not to mention they felt good about their lineup depth and ability to hit any pitcher.

Undoubtedly, it seemed unheard of that Michigan, which entered the game leading the country in home runs with 118, couldn't generate any offense the first four innings against the Gators. The Wolverines' lineup was retired in order three innings.

"It happens," said junior Sierra Romero, whose single in the fifth scored the only run for Michigan. "I can't really be all that mad. All of our seniors did everything we could have asked them to do. I'm proud of this team, so I have nothing to be sad about."

The Wolverines' first hit of the game came on Tera Blanco's single in the fifth inning with one out, and Abby Ramirez followed with a single. After Sierra Lawrence's flyout to short right field, Romero scored Blanco with a single. Kelly Christner ended the inning flying out and stranding two.

Haeger, who drove in all of Florida's run in a 3-2 victory in Game 1, got things started for the Gators with an RBI single just over the reach of Romero for a 1-0 lead.

With two out in the first, the Gators weren't done.

Taylor Schwarz expanded their lead to 3-0 with a double that scored two. Michigan catcher Lauren Sweet couldn't hang onto the ball on a throw from left-fielder Christner, and Haeger slid home for the third run. The Gators' fourth run came in the second inning on an RBI double by Kelsey Stewart on a 3-2 count.

That's when Betsa, a sophomore, came in to pitch. Betsa had started all of Michigan's World Series games before Game 2, and struggled with confidence the previous three games. Wagner had worked in relief and performed flawlessly in earning the Game 2 start. And after a 1-0 shutout on Tuesday, she earned the start in the decisive game.

Betsa pitched four innings of relief. The 31-game winner had eight strikeouts and allowed one hit, but she hit five batters, the free bases Hutchins mentioned. The fifth hit batter loaded the bases for the Gators in the bottom of the sixth, and Wagner re-entered the game with one out. She managed to get Michigan out of the inning unscathed.

Michigan's last opportunity in the seventh inning started with a single by Ramirez, but Lawrence, on an 0-2 pitch, struck out looking. Romero's grounder got Ramirez at second. With two out, Christner grounded to first to end the Wolverines' hopes for a rally and a championship.

"We stranded eight runners," Hutchins said. "We had a couple innings where we got it going, we just couldn't get the timely hit. (Lawrence) hit one hard to right, went right at them. We hit the ball hard, and they caught it. It was all Haeger tonight, and you have to give her credit, because she got better when we got something going."