By Justin Meyer , Daily Sports Writer
Published April 23, 2014
Michigan was hoping to find a way to pad its Big Ten lead with a midweek trip to Purdue, but instead the Wolverines uncovered some of the same problems that have cropped up for most of the season.
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The first game of a series is a challenge because of the limited familiarity with the opposing pitcher, but the fourth-ranked Wolverines have particularly struggled in openers against better Big Ten opponents.
Ignoring a series against pushover Michigan State, Michigan (15-2 Big Ten, 37-8 overall) has scored just three runs in its last three series-opening conference games against Ohio State, Minnesota and Purdue.
This time, the Wolverines stumbled to a sloppy first inning to open up the doubleheader, dropping the game 3-2 for their second loss of the Big Ten season.
“They let something get in their head,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “I don’t know if it was the pitcher, I don’t know if it was the pressure of the moment, pressure of finals. It just wasn’t their day.”
A two-out rally from Purdue and a passed ball gave the Boilermakers a 2-0 lead and control of the game after one.
Junior lefty Haylie Wagner, who struggled last Friday against No. 12 Minnesota, failed to pitch a complete game for the second time in Michigan’s last two series. The loss is also Wagner’s second of the season, part of a slump she’s found herself in since looking nearly unhittable to begin the season.
First baseman Ashley Burkhardt starred for Purdue, taking second on the passed ball in the first inning to give her team a second run and knocking a double down the right-field line for the game-winning RBI.
Wagner finished the inning, but Hutchins pulled her from the game to start the fourth, inserting junior right-hander Sara Driesenga.
In her two losses this year, Wagner has allowed in 13 hits in 8.2 innings and looked uncomfortable in the circle.
Pitching wasn’t the only concern for the Wolverines on Wednesday, though, as the team was equally frustrated at the plate.
The Wolverines stranded runners in scoring position multiple times throughout the game, and Purdue pitcher Lilly Fecho held off furious sixth- and seventh-inning rallies. Junior catcher Lauren Sweet brought the score to within one when she put a high and inside pitch over the fence in the sixth. But in the seventh, Driesenga fouled out to right field to end the game with the bases loaded.
Before the bats came alive for the second game, Michigan’s top six hitters went a combined 2-for-19, and senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard continued to struggle to get on base.
Blanchard hits cleanup for the Wolverines, holding down one of the most important spots in the order behind standout sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero. The past few weeks, though, have been rocky for Blanchard, and coach Carol Hutchins pulled her in the second game of the series.
“She just didn’t seem on,” Hutchins said. “She was not making adjustments at the plate. She hadn’t had a particularly good first game, and we were ahead in the (second) game by five. (Freshman first baseman Kelly) Christner is a pretty capable player.”
Normally a very consistent hitter, Blanchard has been slumping for some time — she’s not making solid contact the way she normally does, and her plate presence can seem to disappear at times.
In the second contest of the doubleheader, Michigan rebounded at the plate and on the field. Freshman pitcher Megan Betsa pitched a complete game, allowing no runs and five hits in six innings en route to an 11-0 Wolverine victory.
“I think we used the first game as fuel to our fire,” Sweet said. “We weren’t happy with losing, and I think that we really just came out with an edge.”
It was a discouraging trip to West Lafayette for Michigan, especially after following up a surge of positive energy from the last two wins over a very good Minnesota team with an ugly loss to a team it should beat.
Purdue, despite an excellent Big Ten record, hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent since Feb. 9.
The Wolverines did pull it together for the second game of the doubleheader, but slow starts to series have been a theme this year and could spell trouble in the post season.
“We need to come out ready to go and not try to turn it on when we need to,” Sweet said.
Relying on defense to win the first game of a series makes it all too easy for Michigan to find itself in a hole to start the weekend — a sobering fact that the Wolverines have had to face against strong opponents.
“You have to come ready to play every inning, and if there’s any concern it’s (that) we haven’t always been as ready as we needed to,” Hutchins said. “We need to make adjustments in game — inning-to-inning and pitch-to-pitch. As the season moves forward, we are going to be facing some good teams and some good pitching.”
This is Big Ten softball, though, and the Wolverines will have to wait to meet those good teams. First, they head to Champaign to take on the Big Ten’s last-place team, Illinois.