Aria Gerson: The end of the road
Call it a collapse.
Maybe that’s what it was. Losing four out of your last five games — the fifth by squandering a one-run lead in the sixth inning of an elimination contest — certainly qualifies.
But maybe the end for the Michigan softball team was less of a collapse and more of an inevitability, a train barreling out of control with nothing to stop it until its unceremonious crash. Maybe this was where the season was destined to head. Maybe the issues that plagued the Wolverines were always there and just hiding in the periphery.
In NCAA Regionals, it was Notre Dame’s Alexis Holloway who outdueled freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien twice — holding Michigan to two runs on seven hits across the two games. That’s a tough spot for any ace.
Maybe it isn’t such a shock. Holloway, Michigan State pitcher Kristina Zalewski and Ohio State pitcher Shelby McCombs all beat the Wolverines down the stretch. All have something in common: a devastating changeup. Each time, Michigan could do nothing with it. It was a weakness the Fighting Irish were happy to exploit.
And when the hits don’t fall in, it’s easy to get in your head, to press, to have your courage dissipate until there’s nothing left except a mark in the loss column. For the Wolverines, it’s been a common theme.
“They’ve spent a lot of time worrying about all the worst things that can happen, and I think that makes bad things happen,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins after Friday’s defeat. “ … We were a little paralyzed by our fear.”
Anyone would be if they weren’t used to losing. And the Wolverines’ real problem wasn’t that they had weaknesses — every team does — but that winning concealed the cracks in the foundation.
During conference play, Michigan feasted on Big Ten pitching, a crop that was mediocre at best and outright terrible at worst. Even then, there was some vulnerability. In one game against Penn State, the Wolverines failed to score until the seventh because the changeup kept them off-balance. And the Big Ten Tournament wasn’t their first look at Zalewski — the first time, she also gave the bats trouble in an eventual 1-0 Michigan win. But even if the Wolverines knew of their flaw, most opposing pitchers lacked a consistent changeup, giving them little opportunity to adjust before that pitfall was exposed on the biggest stage.
And throughout the season, the refrains were there, the signs that Michigan’s struggles had never really gone away.
“I think the biggest thing that was getting us was her changeup,” said freshman designated player Lou Allan after the series against the Nittany Lions last month.
Junior center fielder Natalie Peters expressed the same after Friday’s game when Holloway’s changeup generated nothing but weak contact.
“They try too hard,” Hutchins said after the Texas Invitational in February — a tournament that included losses to Virginia Tech and Texas. “ … They’re making hitting more than it is.”
Following an April defeat to Indiana — in which the Wolverines struggled to come through in clutch situations and left 11 runners on base — her sentiments were remarkably similar.
“(In our losses) we were not confident,” Hutchins said after the Texas Invitational. “We had too many distractions in our head.”
And again in the postseason, Michigan fell victim to a lack of trust in itself.
The signs were easy to ignore as the Wolverines tore through the conference, but looking back, they were there all along. They were there in Michigan’s early-season struggles, there against the Spartans and Penn State, there in narrow late-season escapes against the Buckeyes and Hoosiers.
And ultimately, they were weaknesses that other teams picked up on. The Big Ten Tournament was the first domino and from there, it only cascaded. It showed in the hitters, frozen as another changeup whizzed by. It showed in the defense, so rushed to make plays that it made uncharacteristic errors. It showed in the way Notre Dame looked like a more poised and prepared team every step of the way.
Maybe it was a collapse. It was certainly a fall from grace.
But more than that, it was a simple realization that maybe, just maybe, this team wasn’t as good as it seemed.
Gerson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @aria_gerson.