Sierra Romero is Michigan's biggest star, but, in the biggest moment, she froze up.
Figuratively and literally.
Michigan had trailed Florida for the entire game, but, in the top of the seventh with the Gators clinging onto a 3-2 lead in Game 1 of the WCWS Championship Series, Michigan was on the verge of stealing it. With no outs, the Wolverines had runners on the corners with Romero standing on third base -- representing the tying run just 60 feet away from home plate. Kelsey Susalla hit a hard groundball to Florida shortstop Kathlyn Medina, who had to lunge to her left to field it. Medina turned her back towards Romero at third base to try to turn a double play, and Romero should have been crossing home plate.
But Romero -- worried that Medina might try to go home -- froze in the base path.
And Michigan's should-have-been third run was still standing at third base.
The game wasn't over yet, though. Medina didn't turn the double play, so Michigan still had two more chances to drive in Romero and mitigate her mistake. However, Lauren Sweet swung through Florida closer Delanie Gourley's 2-2 pitch for a strikeout, and, on the next pitch, Lindsay Montemarano grounded out to Medina to seal Florida's 3-2 win.
The loss was Michigan's first since a 9-1 defeat at the hands of Minnesota back on April 3, 2015. In that two-month span, the Wolverines had terrorized the competition, winning 28 straight contests and outscoring their opponents, 246-43. But Michigan knew that Florida -- the top seed in the tournament -- wasn't going to be overpowered like that.
And the Gators made that clear from the get-go.
Florida opened the scoring in the bottom of the first. Kelsey Stewart led off with a hard-hit groundball to shortstop Abby Ramirez, who struggled to get the ball out of her mitt. As a result, she rushed the throw and threw a bouncer towards first base that skipped over Tera Blanco's shoulder, permitting Stewart to advance to second base on the error. Then, two batters later, Lauren Haeger showcased why she was named the 2015 USA Softball National Player of the Year. After fouling off pitch after pitch from Megan Betsa, Haeger scooped the 12th pitch of the at-bat over the left-field wall for her 19th home run of the season to give the Gators an early 2-0 lead. Though Betsa needed 36 pitches to get out of the first inning, she settled down and struck out two of the next three batters.
But Haeger was a thorn in Betsa's side yet again two innings later. Haeger followed a Nicole DeWitt single by driving a pitch all the way to the wall in right-center field for a double, which provided DeWitt enough time to speed around the bases to extend Florida's lead to three runs. The Gators were chomping at the bit for more runs in the third inning, loading the bases with two outs thanks to a hit-by-pitch and a walk, but Haylie Wagner -- like she has throughout this postseason -- entered the circle to relieve Betsa and caused Taylore Fuller to pop one straight up to the catcher for the third out.
Michigan's bats weren't quiet in the first three innings as they tried to answer Haeger's three RBIs, but the Wolverines weren't able to mount a serious threat. They had a single up the middle in each of the first three frames and added a second baserunner on a Blanco walk in the second, but Florida starting pitcher Aleshia Ocasio ended it there.
As Michigan's normally explosive offense then sputtered, it was Wagner that kept the Wolverines within range. She didn't allow a single hit in 3.1 innings pitched, and only two Gators reached base against her -- one on an error by Ramirez and the other on a hit-by-pitch. And, because of Wagner's dominance, Michigan finally made its move in the sixth.
With one out and runners on the corners, Wagner almost knotted the score at 3-3 when she drove an Ocasio pitch deep down the left-field line. However, the ball sailed just a few feet to the outside of the left-field pole. Wagner then popped up to the second baseman for the second out, but Ramirez didn't let this opportunity go to waste. With the bases loaded, Ramirez slapped a roller to the left of the Florida shortstop into the outfield. It brought in two runs and cut Florida's lead to 3-2. Sierra Lawrence then tried to extend Michigan's rally and drive in the two runners Michigan had on second and third base, but her deep fly ball to left field was caught just short of the warning track.
Michigan had one last shot to even it up in the seventh, but Romero didn't run home.
The Championship Series isn't over, though. Romero will have a chance to redeem herself tomorrow (Jun. 2nd, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN), when the Wolverines will meet the Gators again for Game 2. This is a best-of-three series, so Michigan must win tomorrow to keep its championship hopes alive. Will Michigan force Game 3? We'll find out.
But, in 2005, when Michigan won it all, they lost Game 1 before winning Game 2 and 3.
So it can be done.