Max Marcovitch: The risk they were willing to take

Tera Blanco in a game on May 18, 2016.

Tera Blanco in a game on May 18, 2016. Buy this photo
Jeremy Mitnick/Daily

 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 6:40pm

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Michigan junior right-hander Tera Blanco struck out the final batter of the game Saturday against Kent State, capping off a complete-game, two-hit, 13-strikeout masterpiece. If that wasn’t enough, Blanco helped her own cause, knocking in three runs with the bat en route to a 5-1 win for the 19th-ranked Wolverines. 

The outing was what her season was supposed to look like.

For a team that came into the season with question marks throughout its lineup and in search of pitching depth, Blanco represented a rare opportunity to provide stability in both areas. 

So far, Blanco has struggled to juggle the extra responsibility, serving as an example of her entire team’s issues.

“It’s a lot to handle mentally, probably, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Blanco said. “Just controlling your mind, and just relaxing, taking one pitch at a time. That’s how I deal with it.”

As a stalwart in the middle of the order for last season’s offensive juggernaut, Blanco’s production ballooned, as she posted a .404 batting average, with a slugging percentage (.748) and home run total (12) that trailed only the legendary Sierra Romero for best on the team. She was a key cog, instrumental to the offensive success of a team that made it to the Women’s College World Series.

An experienced, productive hitter, Blanco seemed set to match or exceed her strong production from a year ago, and provide a stabilizing force in the middle of the Wolverines’ order that lost much of its veteran presence. But last season is long in the rearview mirror — the Wolverines already equaled their loss total (seven) from the entire 2016 season — and as Blanco continues to learn, past success does not guarantee future production.

She now sports a .218 batting average and managed just two extra-base hits over the first 22 games, prompting a demotion in the lineup as Michigan coach Carol Hutchins tries to find her spark from last season. Blanco’s on-base plus slugging (OPS) sits at a startlingly low .688, nearly half the number she posted in her breakout sophomore campaign (1.285). It’s a small sample size, and Blanco could very well turn her season around at the plate going forward.

But maybe we should have seen this coming. 

Blanco thrived last season in her specialized role: playing first base and hitting behind some of the best players in program history. She pitched on occasion — amassing a total of just 29.1 innings in mostly low-pressure situations. 

This season, with the graduation of right-hander Sara Driesenga, Hutchins slotted Blanco into the second spot in the rotation, in addition to her regular position at first base. Given her pedigree as a top pitching recruit — ranked the No. 1 pitcher in 2013 in the softball hotbed of Orange County, Calif., according to the Orange County Register — the move seemed natural. 

And in the beginning of the season, the extra responsibility didn’t concern Hutchins.

“I don’t think (pitching and the loss of offensive production) has to go hand-in-hand,” Hutchins said at her season-opening press conference. “Tera improved last year. She spent most of the preseason pitching, but she was first-team All-American because of her bat. … Tera’s definitely a gamer.”

In retrospect, though, expecting her to match Driesenga’s 130-plus innings with an earned run average near two, while still producing offensively at the same rate, may have been naive.

To her credit, Blanco has undoubtedly matched, or even exceeded, expectations on the mound. With an ERA of 2.08, she continues to provide a compliment to senior right-hander Megan Betsa to create a formidable rotation that has become this team’s strongsuit. Her efforts this past weekend even earned her the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week Award.

But the offense — which has mustered just 1.8 runs per game against nine ranked opponents this season — misses her bat dearly, which has shown few signs of life in the beginning of the season. Perhaps that’s just an inherent consequence of Blanco’s expanded role.

Fortunately for the Michigan softball team, the story of the 2017 season has yet to be written — nor will it be written for awhile. But it seems hard to imagine a happy ending to that narrative without an offensive rejuvenation from Tera Blanco.

That’s no easy task, and the road forward won’t be any easier on the right-hander. There is a certain attention to detail incumbent upon starting pitchers — scouting opposing lineups, mixing pitch selection, recalling past at-bats, etc. — that can inevitably be mentally consuming. When combining that with hitting in the lineup on a regular basis, you invite the danger of spreading a player’s talents thin. Sometimes being a “gamer” isn’t enough.

That was a risk the Wolverines were willing to take.

Now they’re paying the price for it.