By Jake Lourim, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 24, 2014
For the first time in Big Ten play, the Michigan softball team is in a slump.
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Now, the Wolverines will look to a three-game series against last-place Illinois to battle out of it.
After a doubleheader split at Purdue on Wednesday, Michigan (15-2, 37-8) will continue its road trip at Illinois (3-14, 19-23) starting Friday at 7 p.m.
After winning their first 12 Big Ten games by a combined score of 120-10, the Wolverines have dropped two of their past five and scored three or fewer runs in three of those games. Wednesday, they opened a doubleheader by leaving 10 runners on base and losing, 3-2, to a Purdue team just a shade above the .500 mark at 25-22-1.
“It is very frustrating,” said junior catcher Lauren Sweet. “Sometimes it doesn’t go your way, and sometimes we just have to live with that and come back and win the next game.”
A visit to Champaign could be just the right remedy for this slump. The Illini sit in last place in the Big Ten and haven’t scored more than three runs in a game since April 5, a span of 10 games. They are 1-9 in those games.
Still, the stats don’t show those struggles. Illinois ranks sixth in the conference in team batting average and seventh in team earned-run average. Outfielders Alex Booker and Kylie Johnson lead the team with batting averages of .374 and .372, respectively, and four players have hit at least five home runs, compared to just three for Michigan.
Brandi Needham is Illinois’ top pitcher, sitting at 13-13 with a 3.05 ERA.
But if the first half of Big Ten conference play was any indication, those numbers don’t mean anything if the Wolverines are on their game. They have three of the conference’s top four pitchers by earned-run average and continue to split the innings fairly evenly, giving one pitcher one start each in the past three weekends.
“If somebody’s not on, we’re going to the next one,” Hutchins said Wednesday after pulling junior left-hander Haylie Wagner in the fourth inning of game one.
In the past week, Michigan hasn’t always played its best, especially in series openers. Besides the losses to Minnesota last Friday and Purdue on Wednesday, the Wolverines scored only one run in their first game against Ohio State on April 11.
“In a three-game series, you keep seeing the same pitches over and over, your success goes up,” Hutchins said. “In the first game, it’s tough. It’s tough for all teams.”
“It’s different every time we have a game like that, and sometimes it’s just us not coming out ready to go,” Sweet added. “We just need to come out ready to go and not just turn it on when we need to.”
For most of the Big Ten season, it has only taken one big play to get Michigan back on track. Most recently, sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero’s first-inning, two-run home run sparked the offense to an 11-0 victory over Purdue in the second game.
Those big plays could come early and often in this weekend’s series. Despite two recent losses, a strong showing this weekend would all but clinch the Wolverines’ seventh straight Big Ten title. At 15-2, they are two games ahead of second-place Nebraska in the loss column with six games to play. Michigan dropped only one spot in the coaches’ poll this week, and after a series against then-No. 12 Minnesota, the Wolverines jumped to No. 7 in the RPI.
But none of that will matter if Michigan doesn’t clean up its issues, and a weekend trip to Illinois would be just the right time to do it.