Aria Gerson: Underclassmen fueling Michigan's surge

Friday, April 20, 2018 - 2:02pm

Sophomore outfielder Haley Hoogenraad has been an integral part of Michigan's success this season.

Sophomore outfielder Haley Hoogenraad has been an integral part of Michigan's success this season. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Early in the season, runs came at a premium.

On Feb. 24, a walk-off squeeze bunt decided a 1-0 loss to Virginia Tech for the Michigan softball team. The Wolverines were just 6-6. Their pitching was strong, but their offense struggled to scratch runs across.

February is way too early to panic, especially in Big Ten softball, where home games don’t come until mid-March. But Michigan — a team that boasts 40 consecutive winning seasons and a team whose nine-year reign atop the Big Ten was snapped in 2017 — was unaccustomed to such mediocrity.

Maybe this year, the graduation losses — outfielder Kelly Christner, infielders Abby Ramirez and Lindsay Montemarano and right-hander Megan Betsa — would be too much to handle. Maybe this year, the flaws in the Wolverines’ pitching-and-defense formula would be exposed. Maybe this year, it was to be expected. How could a team that failed to live up to expectations last year improve after losing its best hitter, its best pitcher and two other regular starters?

But later that afternoon, Michigan recovered from the earlier shutout and run-ruled Wichita State, 11-0. The Wolverines have only lost once since.

With the exception of freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien — who made up for Betsa’s loss with her 0.81 earned-run average — Michigan coach Carol Hutchins stuck with her veterans to start the season.

Players like senior designated player Amanda Vargas, senior infielder Taylor Swearingen and junior utility player Alex Sobczak filled out the Wolverines’ position-player rotation. None produced. The offense rested on the shoulders of junior second baseman Faith Canfield and senior first baseman Tera Blanco. A top team can’t rely on just two hitters, and when they struggled, the whole team struggled.

But there were underclassmen waiting in the wings, and it was those young players who would be key to the Wolverines’ turnaround.

Hutchins, of course, had a good reason for wanting to let her players develop.

“They’re going to have to learn to play the game at this level,” Hutchins said at the beginning of the season. “ … There are a lot of hard times and those are things they’re going to have to learn because they’ve never been challenged like this, they’ve never had to earn their starting positions, and these are things I’ve seen knock kids down.”

But it soon became clear that the best option was to let the kids play, even if it meant throwing them into the fire.

First it was two sophomores: third baseman Madison Uden, who had all of 47 at-bats last season, and outfielder Haley Hoogenraad, who had just 14. Then it was freshman shortstop Natalia Rodriguez, whose defense was simply too good to pass up. Finally, it was freshman designated player Lou Allan, whose return from injury presented an opportunity in the starting lineup.

All fought through struggles initially, but now, they’ve hit their stride.

Uden’s batting average sat at .176 after the loss to the Hokies and remained below .300 through the beginning of March. Now, though, Uden is batting .381 with an on-base percentage of .455 — both second on the team.

“She’s just taken advantage of the opportunity she’s got at third base,” Hutchins said. “ … We were needing a little more stick in our lineup and she’s really provided it.”

The player who once struggled to stay within herself during important at-bats worked on her plate discipline and reaped the rewards. Now she bats fifth in a rejuvenated lineup.

Hoogenraad was once an afterthought, someone who often served as the flex player — someone in the lineup solely for defense. And though her defense has been as advertised, Hoogenraad’s development at the plate sealed her spot in the starting lineup. Fueled by the desire to earn a place in the batting order, Hoogenraad put in extra hours on off-days.

“This is a kid who comes in, all last year, comes in for extra cuts,” Hutchins said. “ … She’s really put in the time, so to see her excel has been a lot of fun.”

Now, she’s hitting .337 with a .402 OBP, and the idea of having anyone bat for her is ludicrous.

Rodriguez wasn’t the first option at shortstop. But when her other choices didn’t pan out, Hutchins gave Rodriguez and her defensive prowess a shot at the job and never looked back. In the field, she flashes the leather and gives her pitchers a hand. At the plate, she executes her role at the bottom of the lineup nearly flawlessly.

“She gets on base at least once a game,” Hutchins said. “That’s the bottom of the lineup’s job. Her job isn’t to be an RBI producer. She’s on base with the top of the order coming around, she can make so many things happen.”

With Rodriguez’s speed, she punishes opposing defenses. If fielders don’t act quickly or pitchers don’t throw her a strike, they’ll find her on first base with Canfield coming to bat — not a welcome proposition.

And Allan — a top-ranked prospect — was expected to contribute right away, but an injury derailed those plans. But she completed her rehab ahead of schedule and seized the job of designated player. She came in with a reputation as a big bopper, but she’s also not afraid to take a walk.

“Every week she gets a little better,” Hutchins said. “ … She makes adjustments better than probably any kid I’ve ever seen.”

Before, pitchers could pitch around Blanco knowing that those hitting beneath her struggled to produce. Now hitting cleanup, Allan sends a message to opposing pitchers: Let Blanco get on base, and she’ll make sure they regret it. In recent series against Penn State and Rutgers, she produced an RBI double, a two-run home run and two walks with Blanco on base.

Uden, Hoogenraad, Rodriguez and Allan have faced their challenges head-on. They’ve learned how to compete at the collegiate level, and they’ve truly earned their starting spots.

As for the Wolverines, those early-season losses still hamper their record. After all, how elite can this team be if they got shut out by the likes of Virginia Tech and Texas?

But this is not that team.

That team was the Blanco and Canfield show. This team has a strong ensemble cast that complements its two stars instead of relying on them.

That team was made up of young players stumbling in their first taste of life at the next level. This team’s young talent has finally found its footing.

While that team was struggling, it was laying the groundwork for the improvements that would fuel the success of this team.

And for this team, the only direction to go is up.

Gerson can be reached at amgerson@umich.edu or on Twitter @cyan_sunshine.