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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Softball looks to halt speedy Badgers, clinch Big Ten title

By Jake Lourim, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 1, 2014

All season, the Michigan softball team has tried to stay away from the rankings and standings. All season, the Wolverines have deflected focus away from winning a seventh straight Big Ten championship. All season, they’ve been fixated on finding consistency for a May run.

Now, it’s finally May — and those goals are within reach.

“If they’re not excited, there’s something wrong with them,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “This is what you’ve played all year for. When it comes down to what they’ll remember about Team 37 in the 2014 season, they’re going to remember this part of the season. This is what’s going to stick with them. This is what’s going to define the season.”

Michigan hosts Wisconsin (13-6 Big Ten, 31-16 overall) this weekend for a three-game series at Alumni Field, needing only one win to clinch at least a share of the conference title.

Two wins out of three will give the Wolverines (17-3, 39-9) the championship outright — not an unreasonable possibility considering they haven’t lost a Big Ten series all year.

They’ve escaped with wins in the past two three-game series, but it hasn’t been easy. Last Friday, against last-place Illinois, Michigan suffered a six-inning, run-rule loss for the first time this season. The Wolverines almost lost the series in the rubber match Saturday before pulling off a 6-5 victory.

“It’s time for us to understand as a group that we don’t just get to win,” Hutchins said. “We’re not playing the bottom of the league. We’re playing good teams that are capable of beating us.”

Michigan’s rare struggle makes clinching the Big Ten title far from easy this weekend, especially against a red-hot Wisconsin team.

The Badgers have won 14 of their past 15, the only loss being a 12-0 run-rule defeat against Nebraska on Wednesday. But Wisconsin followed that up with a 6-4 win in the second game of a doubleheader to head into this weekend’s series at fourth in the Big Ten.

The Badgers’ stats are fairly mediocre — eighth in batting average, seventh in runs scored, fifth in earned-run average, eighth in fielding percentage — but one sticks out: stolen bases. Wisconsin’s 102 steals lead the league, 41 more than second-place Northwestern and Purdue and 13 more than the bottom four teams combined.

“They’re going to steal everything — you’d better keep your shoes on, because they’ll steal them,” Hutchins said.

So Michigan’s best chance of winning appears to be keeping the Badgers honest on the base paths — or, better yet, keeping them off them entirely.

The Wolverines worked at length during Wednesday’s practice on throwing out runners. Junior catcher Lauren Sweet, whom Hutchins called the best catcher at throwing out runners, spent the most time behind the plate. Sweet has started 43 of 48 games this season at catcher and could end up being Michigan’s most important player this weekend.

Wednesday in practice, the base runners had the edge over the catchers, which could be a warning sign for when the Badgers come to town.

“We weren’t very good at (throwing out runners),” Hutchins said. “We didn’t even throw the ball a couple times. You’re just going to let them have the base? They’re just going to go from home to third.”

Meanwhile, before of the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines will look to regain consistency in a lineup that has gone from dominant to streaky. Michigan has scored 10 or more runs twice in the last eight games, but also three or fewer four times.

Two more games like the former of those, and the Big Ten should be Michigan’s. The title may not be locked up, but it’s still there for the taking.

RANKINGS UPDATE: With the postseason approaching, rankings are becoming more of a factor. With the loss to the Big Ten’s last-place team last weekend, Michigan moved down to No. 15 in the RPI this week. The top 16 in the RPI host regionals, while the top eight are assured a super regional at home. With few opportunities against top teams remaining, the Wolverines may end up hosting the first round of the tournament before heading on the road the rest of the way.