Betsa, lineup look to bounce back in ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins geared practice toward the offense to prepare for this weekend's tournament.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins geared practice toward the offense to prepare for this weekend's tournament. Buy this photo
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Thursday, February 16, 2017 - 6:03pm

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The last time the Michigan softball team entered the second weekend of its season with multiple losses was 2006. 

But after dropping two close games in Tampa, Fla. last weekend, the Wolverines fell from No. 6 to No. 11 in the national rankings and now find themselves in uncharted waters heading into the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this weekend in Raleigh, N.C.

Still, the calendar reads February, and for Michigan coach Carol Hutchins and her team, that means prioritizing progress over results. For one of the longest-tenured coaches in college softball, a couple of opening-weekend losses hardly phase her.

What does concern Hutchins, though — which she emphasized this week in practice — is consistency throughout her lineup, particularly with runners in scoring position.

Last weekend, the Wolverines hit .314 as a team, but managed an average below .200 with runners in scoring position. There are several potential explanations for that disparity, both physically and mentally.

“A lot of it was our mindset,” said senior shortstop Abby Ramirez. “We didn’t get the timely hits we needed, so we’ve been working on hitting with runners in scoring position and not making it too big of a deal in your head. Just taking it as a normal at-bat.”

That struggle may also be a product of the lack of experience. Entering last weekend, only five players on the roster had earned over 100 at-bats in their careers. 

Sophomores Natalie Peters, Courtney Richardson, Alex Sobczak and Faith Canfield — all expected to be major contributors on offense this season — entered the season with a combined total of 182 at-bats in their careers, with most coming in blowouts, pinch-hit appearances or other lower-leverage sitations. For context, senior outfielder Kelly Christner had nearly that many (179) on her own last season.

“We spent most of yesterday free-swinging, working on drills that help untie us. We’re a little tied-up, a little tight,” Hutchins said. “And they look like they’re swinging a little better, but obviously we’ll see this weekend.”

Granted, this weekend will not mount the same type of challenge to the young lineup that now-No. 1 Florida was able to provide last weekend.

Michigan will go up against NC State and Notre Dame — each twice — in this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Wolfpack and Fighting Irish went 2-3 and 3-2, respectively, in their opening weekend tournaments.

These two games will be just the fifth and sixth matchups all-time between Michigan and NC State — the Wolverines have won all four of their previous contests. If Michigan can focus on keeping the ball in the ballpark, it should have a good chance to take both games against the Wolfpack. Last season, NC State finished 11th in the country in home runs per game (1.29), despite managing just the 179th best batting average in the country (.270 average). 

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is a more well-known opponent.

“I know we’ll have our hands full (with the Fighting Irish),” Hutchins said in an interview with WTKA on Thursday. “We always have great competitive matchups with Notre Dame, they’re a very familiar team, as we see them often in our postseason.” 

Most recently, Michigan topped the Fighting Irish last May, 6-2, to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals. That day, then-junior right-hander Megan Betsa neutralized the Notre Dame lineup, limiting it to just two runs in a complete-game performance. 

Most notably, though, Betsa did not walk a batter and threw just 93 pitches. While she has been outspoken about wanting to pitch to contact more this season, Betsa threw over 300 pitches and walked 10 batters in 17 innings last weekend. 

Though she was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week for the dominance — to her credit, the 0.41 earned-run average and 27 strikeouts speak for themselves — Hutchins knows that in order to maximize the number of innings Betsa can throw this season while still maintaining her health for a postseason run, Betsa will have to be more efficient.

“It’s not lost on her that the more pitches she throws in a game, the less available she’s going to be,” Hutchins said. “We’re very cognizant of (her workload). She just needs to attack hitters. You don’t pitch to not get hit, you pitch to beat them, and she’s very capable of that.”

While the theme of the week was improving the consistency of the offense, perhaps the most important aspect to watch this weekend will be the pitching staff. If Betsa and junior right-hander Tera Blanco can be more efficient and effective in their outings, that could bode well not only for this weekend, but for the rest of the season.

The calendar may read February — and for Betsa the results may continue to be good — but it’s those types of gradual improvements that may be beneficial come May.