Improved offensive performance gives Blanco, Wolverines hope going forward
Michigan first baseman Tera Blanco came to the plate in the top of the first inning last Wednesday with a runner on second base and a two-run cushion already in tow.
Blanco patiently worked a 3-2 count before finding her pitch; she didn’t miss. Keeping her weight back, she blasted the fastball to center, rocketing what appeared to be a shot headed for Yost and beyond.
But the ball plummeted just feet too short, allowing Michigan State centerfielder Lea Foerster to make a spectacular leaping grab just left of the “222” sign under the flagpole, indicating the deepest part of the ballpark. It may have been frustrating for Blanco at the time, but the result didn’t mar the progress that has become apparent in her approach at the plate.
This type of approach — one complete with high contact level, pitch recognition and patience — hasn’t been there for the Wolverines’ fans to see since last year’s Women’s College World Series.
In her next at-bat, in the third inning, the Spartans wanted nothing to do with Blanco — walking her on five pitches with first base open and two outs. Neglecting to force the issue, Blanco took her base, extending an inning that very well may have halted there just weeks ago. Two batters later, a bases-loaded walk of junior infielder Amanda Vargas would tack on another run and extend the lead to four.
While Blanco’s day may appear inconsequential in the scorebook — no hits, no runs batted in, one walk, one run scored — her approach offered more evidence of a player breaking out when her team needs it most.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins believes her improved mentality has led to her across-the-board improvement.
“Tera has done her part and embraced pitching,” Hutchins said. “She wants to win and wants to be good. She’s improved in every category and most importantly in attitude.”
It’s been no secret that the junior first baseman/right-hander has underperformed at the plate relative to expectations. Blanco was perhaps the second-most productive Wolverine hitter last season, behind only Sierra Romero.
After a monstrous 2016 season — .404 average, 66 RBI, 12 home runs, .537 on-base percentage, etc. — Blanco was slotted into the middle of the order to start the season. With a young offense now devoid of the same firepower that headlined the 2016 lineup, Blanco, at least, could assuredly be counted on.
Until she couldn’t.
Perhaps her increased role in the circle affected her, perhaps it didn’t.
Perhaps it was unfair to expect the same production at the plate — alongside her role in the circle — right away, perhaps it wasn’t.
Blanco admits that the increased workload has an impact mentally, though she has readily denied that the dual role directly affects her performance.
“It’s something I’ve had to get used to this year, but I really enjoy it,” Blanco said earlier in the season. “I love being in the lineup and having to make an impact on the game. It’s a lot to handle mentally, probably, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
She took that same approach into the weekend series against Maryland, this time with better statistical success.
Deadlocked in a 1-1 tie in the top of the fifth inning Sunday, Blanco stepped in with a runner in scoring position and two outs. She identified her pitch, knocking a sharp single back up the middle to bring in the go-ahead run.
This time, there was no robbing Blanco of her production.
And really, the game against the Terrapins was just one part of a larger trend.
Over the last 15 games — a significant sample size — Blanco has posted a .382 average, with 16 RBI. In addition, her 10 walks and just three strikeouts over the same span are a testament to a more patient approach that has keyed the turnaround.
While it’s not certain what was hindering Blanco at the begining of the season, what is apparent are the changes that she has shown lately.
The changes Blanco has noticed; the changes Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has noticed; the changes that just may change the course of the Wolverines’ season.