Bloomington, Ind. — In a game filled with offensive struggles, all Michigan freshman outfielder Lexie Blair needed was one pitch.
Blair launched a solo home run over the right-field fence at Andy Mohr Field to end an eight-inning duel and send top-seeded Michigan to the semifinals of the Big Ten softball tournament with a 1-0 walk-off victory Friday over No. 9 Illinois.
The Wolverines (41-11) advance to play No. 5 Wisconsin in the first semifinal on Saturday.
“I was just trying to stay loose,” Blair said. “I don’t like to think too much, but right before I had Kenzie (teammate Mackenzie Nemitz) telling me just to be me. Little things like that are helpful just to know the team is on your side. Even though the game is on the line, we were still keeping our energy high.”
Blair’s homer, her sixth of the season, was one of just seven hits for the Wolverines off Illinois’ Taylor Edwards (5-8).
Michigan and Illinois (32-23) battled back and forth over the course of seven innings before anyone broke through. Every time a team was on the verge of scoring, a defensive play would end the threat.
Illinois second baseman Avrey Steiner doubled off Michigan runners in the third and fourth innings after catching line drives hit at her.
In the fifth inning, Michigan sophomore shortstop Natalia Rodriguez made a diving play to her right to field the ball and throw out an Illinois runner at third to keep it a scoreless game.
The low-scoring affair was a far cry from what fans expected heading into a matchup of two of the conference’s most productive offenses. In an April series that Michigan swept, the two teams combined for 41 runs in three games.
“You have to beat them once,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. ”You have to be in the moment. It’s not — we got 16 runs last time off them the last time we played them. That’s where we were and if we thought it was going to be easy, then we’re not on page because every game for the rest of the year is going to be very difficult.”
Michigan’s pitching has been outstanding all season, and Friday was no different.
Freshman pitcher Alex Storako got the start in the circle for the Wolverines and went 4.1 innings before giving way to sophomore Meghan Beaubien. Storako and Beaubien (26-4) each struck out four and teamed up to shut out Illinois on four hits.
Beaubien gave Michigan some much needed strikes in gut-check moments, including a 12-pitch battle with Illinois leadoff hitter Annie Fleming in the seventh inning that resulted in a pop out to the catcher with runners on base.
“I was just taking it one pitch at a time and trusting that was all it took in the moment to not get too far ahead of myself,” Beaubien said.
Michigan will look to ride the momentum of Blair’s homer into its matchup with Wisconsin (40-11), which made the semifinals with a 10-1 win over Ohio State in the first game Friday. The winner will play for the tournament title at approximately 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Wolverines and Badgers have yet to meet this season, but Hutchins believes her team has to come out more aggressive and focused if they want to beat a Wisconsin team that's finding its groove at the right time.
“We've got to get past Wisconsin and that will be tough,” Hutchins said. “They play loose, tough and aggressive, and they managed to put up 10 runs on Ohio State so they’re hot. They’re a good team.”
Big Ten tournament
At Bloomington, Indiana; all games on Big Ten Network
►No. 5 Wisconsin 7, No. 12 Iowa 4
►No. 9 Illinois 6, No. 8 Nebraska 4
►No. 7 Indiana 4, No. 10 Penn State 2
►No. 11 Purdue 4, No. 6 Rutgers 3
►Wisconsin 10, No. 4 Ohio State 1
►No. 1 Michigan 1, Illinois 0
►No. 2 Northwestern 2, Indiana 0
►No. 3 Minnesota 4, Purdue 3
►Semifinal: Wisconsin vs. Michigan, 9 a.m.
►Semifinal: Northwestern vs. Minnesota, 11:30 a.m.
►Championship, 2 p.m.
Jared Rigdon is a freelance writer.