In breakout season, Alexander does it all

Thursday, April 12, 2018 - 7:18pm

Junior catcher Katie Alexander has developed into a good, all-around catcher for Michigan.

Junior catcher Katie Alexander has developed into a good, all-around catcher for Michigan. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Katie Alexander was supposed to be plan B.

A walk-on from local Saline High School, the junior spent her freshman year as the bullpen catcher. Last year, she opened the season behind fellow sophomore Alex Sobczak on the depth chart. By the end of the season, she had earned the job thanks to her solid — if unspectacular — offensive output and stalwart defense behind the plate.

But this year, Alexander isn’t anyone’s idea of a backup plan. Instead of a steady, defensive-minded backstop, she’s grown into an all-around force, the unsung hero of the Michigan softball team.

***

Top of the fourth inning, the Wolverines trailing Notre Dame, 3-0. Two runners on, two outs. Alexander steps up to the plate. She takes two cuts. Both miss. But she isn’t going to miss again.

On the next pitch, she hits a bomb to straightaway center that clears the fence and ties the game.

Alexander remembers the home run like it was yesterday. It was her freshman year and Michigan was in Palm Springs, Calif., for the Mary Nutter Classic. The Wolverines were trailing, 6-4, to Oklahoma when then-sophomore first baseman Tera Blanco took a 1-1 pitch deep, over the fence and out of the park. Suddenly, the score was 7-6 and Michigan had a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

At that point, Alexander didn’t play much, but she was watching and learning. And Blanco — who pitched when she wasn’t raking at the plate — was one of her biggest influences.

“This was around the time me and her were starting to become close,” Alexander said. “She’s been kind of a mentor to me in telling me that I’m good enough and I can be a good player, and I remember watching her bat and … this was the farthest home run I’ve ever seen. I just saw her swing so hard and make such good connection. And I can just replay it in my head.”

That year, as Alexander worked to remake her swing, she used that home run as a guide.

The changes worked. Once a non-presence at the plate, Alexander is now a key middle-of-the-order bat, and she’s still improving. While last year Alexander hit .260 with a .339 on-base percentage — both last on the team among regular starters — this year she’s at .330 and .406, fourth on the team. She’s already matched last year’s total of four home runs.

“I’m just trying to be more on time,” Alexander said. “ … That’s what I’ve pretty much been working on, is hitting the back of the ball and not trying to worry about, so much, mechanical things.”

And now, she’s gone from being a good hitter for a catcher to being a flat-out good hitter.

***

Bottom of the second against Detroit Mercy. Alexander reaches on an error. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins opts not to pinch-run, even with the top of the order coming up. The Titan catcher’s throws to second base have looked off all game, so with freshman shortstop Natalia Rodriguez at the plate, Alexander takes off.

Sure enough, the throw isn’t good enough to gun her down. A batter later, junior second baseman Faith Canfield hits a single to right field and Alexander takes the extra base, scoring all the way from second.

Like the light-hitting catcher, the slow catcher is a common trope in softball. When they do find themselves on base, they are often lifted for pinch-runners who will provide a better chance to score and a lower chance of a double play. That’s not Alexander, though.

Sure, Alexander isn’t a huge base-stealing threat, but she has good instincts on the bases, and her experience behind the plate allows her to read the catcher to know when she has a chance at a free bag.

“A ball in the dirt, if I see it, and I know I’m quick enough to go, I’m just taking that base because it’s gonna put me in a better position to score for my team,” Alexander said. “ … I know I’m still quick on the bases, so I do take pride in that.”

Not a lot of catchers can say they add value on the basepaths. But Alexander isn’t a lot of catchers.

***

Top of the second in a scoreless game against Michigan State. Freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien hasn’t quite settled down and hits Spartan batter Kaitlyn Eveland with a pitch. In a game when offensive opportunities would be hard to come by, it was vital to stifle every opportunity Michigan State got. The next batter swings through a rise-ball for strike three, and Eveland takes off. Alexander fires to Rodriguez, who is there to apply the tag. Double play.

The Wolverines’ identity as a team centers around top-notch pitching. Fans see Beaubien, Blanco and freshman right-hander Sarah Schaefer putting up zeroes. Halfway through conference season, Michigan has already set a team record with five no-hitters.

What the fans don’t see as readily is Alexander, who runs the show from behind the plate. She calls pitches, blocks breaking balls, guns down runners and keeps her pitchers calm. For a talented — but largely inexperienced — pitching staff, it can make all the difference.

Opposing batters have just three successes in nine stolen base attempts against Alexander. Combined, they have stolen only one more base than Alexander herself has. Runners have stopped attempting the steal, because they know the odds are against them.

“(Strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double plays) are my favorite,” Alexander said after the Michigan State game. “I haven’t got to throw somebody out in a couple weekends … but I’ve learned to be ready for anything, and it just felt right. I just knew it was gonna happen.”

For a pitching staff that’s already stingy with baserunners, Alexander’s skill with her arm just adds an extra layer of protection.

Beaubien, Blanco and Schaefer all heavily feature a changeup in their arsenal. While the pitch is perplexing to hitters, it can also drop into the dirt, creating a possibility for the ball to scamper away and award runners an extra base. But working with former Wolverine pitchers Megan Betsa and Sara Driesenga — also changeup pitchers — has taught Alexander how to handle the pitch without fear. She has just three passed balls all season. Pitchers have nothing to worry about.

“Just being confident in the call that I’m gonna make,” Alexander said. “But also showing (the pitcher) that I can block those balls. She doesn’t have to be afraid where she’s gonna throw it if they swing at it, because I’m gonna stop it and help her get the out at first.”

Added Beaubien: “She can block anything.”

***

Bottom of the ninth against Florida State, two outs. Michigan is clinging to a 1-0 lead against the No. 8 team in the country. Beaubien, who has been masterful all game, is showing signs of unraveling.

With two outs, a wild pitch puts runners on second and third. But one more strike will seal the game.

Alexander walks to the circle and offers words of encouragement. Beaubien comes back to strike the batter out to complete the shutout.

Alexander exudes confidence on and off the field. As the other parts of her game have improved, her poise has only grown. Alexander always admired the culture of Michigan softball and the competitiveness that brings out the best in every player, and now she is fully integrated as a part of it. Her skill, her grit and her spirit rub off on others.

“When I’m out there with Katie, I know she’s got my back,” Beaubien said. “And sometimes, if she sees something in me, like I get a little stressed or off or something, she just comes out there and she’s really — she’s reassuring.”

It goes both ways. Alexander’s confidence gives her pitchers trust in her and trust in themselves. It was faith in her own potential that allowed Alexander to make such monumental improvements, and those improvements in turn boosted her confidence.

“There’s a lot of ups and a lot of downs,” Hutchins said. “And I love her confidence more than anything. Why she has become not just our starting catcher, but a great catcher is her confidence. She’s confident back there and now she’s getting confident at the plate. … You have to have confidence in yourself, knowing that a lot of failure is involved.”

Alexander could have accepted her role as a walk-on and a backup at the school she always wanted to attend. She could have been content with being plan B. But instead, she put in the work to become the player she knew she could be. She became a force on offense and stingy on defense, and it’s paid dividends for her and for the team.

The Wolverines have a legacy of strong backstops. Indeed, during Hutchins’ tenure, Michigan catchers have earned All-American honors four times.

But, says Hutchins, “Katie’s as good a catcher as we’ve had.”