Daniel Dash: Hello darkness, my old friend

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 12:52am

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins' team could not produce any offense against James Madison.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins' team could not produce any offense against James Madison. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

During March, April and much of May, it looked as if the Michigan softball team overcame the glaring weakness that kept it from succeeding in February.

But at the NCAA Regional, the 15th-seeded Wolverines’ inability to hit with runners on base resurfaced. And this time, it proved fatal.

Up until this past weekend, the season was unfolding like a fairytale. After dipping below .500 at least six games into a season for the first time in nearly two decades and posting a 5-9 record against eventual NCAA Tournament teams, the problem was clear. Michigan’s inability to hit with runners on base led to narrow losses against then-No. 7 Arizona, No. 9 Louisiana State, Louisville and North Carolina.

Whenever the Wolverines put runners aboard, their bats fell silent. That problem kept Michigan from winning tight games. That problem kept the program off the national radar. That problem had the country wondering if it was the end of an era.

After an uncharacteristic February for the program, the Wolverines rallied behind their five seniors — all of which took vastly different paths to the starting lineup. They won 33 of their next 34 games, highlighted by an outright Big Ten regular season championship and conference tournament title.

As it turned out, that resume was just enough for Michigan to host its first NCAA Regional since 2016, when advancing on home turf ignited a run to the Women’s College World Series.

The dominoes had fallen into place. For the first time since their freshman season, the Wolverines’ seniors would play NCAA Tournament softball on their own diamond. During the regular season, Michigan posted a perfect 15-0 record at home. It seemed as though the stars had aligned for this fairytale’s next chapter.

Instead, the Wolverines’ February demon derailed the storyline. In 26 innings against James Madison ace Megan Good, who has the lowest ERA and most career wins of any active NCAA player, they scored just two runs. That’s not for lack of opportunity, though, as Michigan stranded a staggering 23 baserunners.

The three games against the Dukes were decided by a total of five runs, amplifying the importance of each missed opportunity. As baserunners trotted back to the dugout without crossing home plate at the end of each inning, the shortcomings grew more noticeable.

Thanks to sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien’s 12 shutout innings on Saturday, the problem initially flew under the radar. The excitement of winning Saturday’s thriller took the focus off the Wolverines’ glaring weakness. But after Sunday’s rainout washed away those emotions, Michigan fell victim to the same shortcomings on Monday.

Only needing to beat James Madison once more, the Wolverines first faltered with runners on base in the third inning. With two outs, senior outfielder Natalie Peters stepped into the batter’s box with runners on first and second base. She laced a line drive at Dukes’ third baseman Hannah File, who made the catch to end the threat and preserve the scoreless tie.

An inning later, Michigan loaded the bases with only one out. Trailing by one run this time around, the Wolverines appeared bound to break through against Good. Just about any ball in play had the potential to tie the game, but a shallow pop up and groundout kept Michigan off the scoreboard.

Postseason opportunities tend to be scarce, so coughing up two golden chances to pounce on Good was a tough pill for the Wolverines to swallow.

“Timely hitting is the name of the game in any game and especially in the postseason,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “And they’re tough to come by on both sides. We just needed one more. … We never seemed to get it going. We didn’t put things together until late and it just wasn’t enough.”

When the dust settled, the sum of those stranded runners was too much to overcome. By the end of the regional, the Wolverines were the nation’s only seeded team that failed to advance.

Some are quick to point the finger to a weak conference, which could theoretically leave Michigan ill-prepared to face a team of James Madison’s caliber in the postseason. Prior to conference play, 13 of the Wolverines’ first 19 games came against teams ranked top-36 in RPI — a group that includes just four Big Ten teams.

The catch? Michigan played none of those Big Ten teams until May. That left two months between competitive opponents.

But the Dukes found themselves in the same boat, only to a more extreme degree. Outside of James Madison, only one Colonial Athletic Association team finished top-120 in RPI, and that was Elon at a lackluster No. 68. In five meetings, the Dukes outscored the Phoenix by 36 runs. Like the Wolverines, they saw next to no competition between mid-March and mid-May.

It didn’t come down to how well each team’s conference slate prepared them for postseason play. It came down to a competitive edge. A clutch gene. A willingness to seize the moment. On Monday, James Madison came up with the big hits that Michigan couldn’t.

For all that a Big Ten championship and conference tournament title are worth, 2019’s lasting memory may be what could’ve been. The opportunity was there for the taking.

Just when the inability to hit with runners on base seemed like a distant memory, it became the fairytale’s villain. The Wolverines couldn’t overcome it this time, and a good season fell just short of great.

Dash can be reached via email at dashdan@umich.edu or through Twitter at @danieldash428.