Big Ten Champions
Extra Innings, Bottom of 8th, 2 Out, Bases Empty
Melina Livingston of Michigan turned on the last pitch of the game from Courtney Wallace and the ball shot off her bat on the ground in the direction of Sydney Gray.
Michigan came up for their opening bats of the game in the bottom of the 1st already trailing 1-0. That was courtesy of Cam Ybarra absolutely ripping a line drive that showed no interest whatsoever in descending, at least not until it sailed down the fair side of the right field line and just over the fence.
Kristina Burkhardt led off for Michigan and proceeded to pop a nearly identical shot which was about two feet short of clearing the same spot. Still, she was standing on 2nd when time was called then was quickly sac flied over to 3rd with only one down. In danger of the game being tied, Olivia Ferrell rang up .331 hitter Lexie Blair with one of her two strikeouts on the day when they needed it most. After a soft liner to left for the final out the threat was over.
In a situation like this with two outs and the bases empty, there was no reason to panic. The way the Huskers had been coming up in tight situations, the bases could have been loaded with live ammunition maneuvers going on around her, and her pulse would have been south of 60. Gray calmly scooped the ball and turned to throw.
After cruising for the previous two innings, Ferrell walked Blair to start the bottom of the 4th.
Side note: You may be wondering why the 4th-seeded Wolverines found themselves as the home team against the 2nd-seeded Huskers. Well, that’s because the Big Ten decided that in the final, the home team should be the team which had already been the visitor the most times. If that was a tie, THEN the higher seeded team would become home.
If it sounds like they punished the team with a more successful regular season only because a lower seeded team pulled an upset, then you read it right. B1G execs should never be left alone in meetings unsupervised.
Blair then stole 2nd and when SS Billie Andrews mishandled the throw quickly advanced and Michigan had a runner on 3rd with nobody out. Hannah Carson hit a sharp grounder to Gray at 3rd who quickly looked Blair back, then in a bit of foreshadowing, gunned Carson at first holding the runner.
Faced once again with a runner on 3rd and one out, Ferrell unleashed her 2nd and final strikeout of the game whiffing Friday’s 7th inning hero Taylor Bump on a 2-2 nasty changeup. Faced with the same count on Livingston, she threw the same pitch and got a groundout to Andrews to end the threat.
When you’ve been playing a game and a position for years, you don’t think it over, you just let it fly. As in the fourth inning with all the pressure on her shoulders, Gray cocked her arm to do just that again.
The bottom of this inning started innocently enough with Annabele Widra standing on 2nd with two down. Widra had been drilled high on one of Ferrell’s three hit batsmen of the day.
Ferrell was not out of control - there’s just a very, very lax view of what is allowed as far as being “hit”. For the other two HBP’s, one girl leaned in on the pitch but no call or challenge came and on the other, the batter crowding the plate just never budged on a pitch about 6” inside. We were definitely making Bad News Bears Rudy Stein jokes along the press table.
Anyway, Ferrell pitched around Burkhardt with the unintentional intentional walk putting her on first, then Leclair singled to tie the game. A walk to Blair followed loading the bases and suddenly the Wolverines were one good Hannah Carson swing from blowing to a solid lead.
Instead, Ferrell once again drew a grounder to short and Andrews flipped to Ybarra to dodge a huge bullet.
Gray fired toward first base and the minute it left her hand, there was never any doubt.
The bottom of the 7th inning started with the PA guy yelling “HERE WE GO!!” to the predominantly Michigan crowd as the music was bumped up an octave or two. Hmmm, nothing like that for the Huskers in the top of the 7th - Big Ten, your neutrality was appreciated as always.
Ella McVey leading off was plunked by Ferrell (as described above) and took 1st bringing up Burkhardt who, in addition to ripping one of the right field fence, had also ripped one off of Ferrell’s gut before walking in her previous at bat. Pitching carefully, Ferrell walked her once more pushing the winning run to scoring position and Courtney Wallace came on in relief.
Audrey LeClair slapped a hard grounder to Cam Ybarra at second. Cam charged up to tag Burkhardt who tried to leap out of the way then fired a pea to Mya Felder at first who dug it out a hair ahead of LeClair for an amazing double play.
Uh oh. Umpire huddle time and off to the cameras for the review if the tag was made or was the runner out of the baseline. Husker hearts started to sink. No one lacked any belief in this team, boy, especially not now, but how many flags, reviews, reversals, etc. had this school been subjected to in that last 10-15 years?? Many, including myself, braced for the worst.
The blues trotted back out - fist up. Double play. Bedlam in that pouch of Husker fans behind the first base bench. With two down and a runner on 3rd, Blair popped to second and the Huskers were off to extra innings with new life.
Michigan’s ace Alex Storako had allowed only 2 hits over 7 innings until Cam Ybarra locked up her tournament MVP award with the go-ahead RBI double followed by Gray herself’s line-shot single for the insurance run. It was simply time to get it done, so they did it.
For three straight days, these Comeback Kids had calmly escaped trouble, risen to every challenge thrown down at them and played like anything but kids.
And when Sydney Gray’s final and perfect throw smacked into Mya Felder’s mitt, these Comeback Kids were Big Ten Champions.