Texas Invitational a tale of two teams

Sunday, February 25, 2018 - 9:21pm

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins believers her team is thinking too much when batting.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins believers her team is thinking too much when batting. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

It was almost as if two different Michigan softball teams showed up to the Texas Invitational.

The first was a powerhouse, the team that exploded for 11 runs in four innings in a Wichita State blowout.

The second was nearly the polar opposite, an anemic team that seemed unable to scratch out a run no matter what it did.

The two versions of the offense defined the tournament for the 20th-ranked Wolverines (8-6 overall). Throughout, there was a sense that something wasn’t quite clicking.

In a 2-0 victory over Virginia Tech, Michigan had just three hits and scored its runs on a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch by sophomore outfielder Haley Hoogenraad and a sacrifice fly by senior utility player Tera Blanco.

The next two games were more of the same, as the Wolverines managed a mere five hits against Texas — a 3-0 loss — and four in their rematch with the Hokies.

“They try too hard,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “ … They’re making hitting more than it is.”

But less than an hour after a heartbreaking loss to Virginia Tech in which they lost, 1-0, on a walk-off squeeze bunt in the eighth inning, the Wolverines were back on the field against the Shockers. There, they were a different version of themselves.

Junior second baseman Faith Canfield — looking to jumpstart the offense — led off the game with a bunt single. By the end of the first inning, every Michigan batter had come to the plate and six runs had scored. By the end of the second, the Wolverines had all reached base at least once. Sophomore shortstop Madison Uden and senior utility player Aidan Falk each had three RBIs as the game ended after the top of the fifth with Michigan winning, 11-0.

“When you lose a game, you, in a sense, maybe feel uptight or under pressure,” said junior catcher Katie Alexander. “ … You feel like, ‘I have to do this, I have to win.’

“And I just don’t think that’s what we were thinking in that game. We were thinking, like, ‘Let’s have fun and be the team that we are.’ … That Wichita State game is exactly the team we are.”

That team showed up again in the early innings of Sunday’s rematch against the Longhorns. Uden led off the second inning with a bunt single. Two singles, two stolen bases, a walk and a hit-by-pitch later, Michigan had scored four runs. But the Wolverines seemed to retreat after that, struggling to put anything together the rest of the game.

But even when the offense looked lost, the pitching was the opposite. Throughout the tournament, Michigan’s pitchers kept the team in games it would have had no shot at winning otherwise.

The Wolverines gave up just four runs the whole weekend — three of which came on a three-run home run that freshman right-hander Sarah Schaefer gave up to the Longhorns on Friday. The fourth came in the loss to the Hokies because of a rule that dictated that a runner start on second base in extra innings. Virginia Tech opted to bunt the runner to third, and with one out, a suicide squeeze was all it took to bring the runner home, leaving freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien powerless.

Beaubien put on a clinic throughout the invitational, throwing two complete-game shutouts — against Virginia Tech and Texas — and added three scoreless innings against the Shockers. Blanco tossed 5.1 innings of shutout ball in the loss to the Hokies and two scoreless innings in relief in the Longhorns loss. And Schaefer allowed no runs in a garbage-time appearance against Wichita State.

“Their competitiveness is something that drives them,” Alexander said. “And I think that’s why they’re doing so well right now.”

With top-tier pitching and the version of the offense that showed up against the Shockers, it’s easy to see Michigan’s tantalizing potential. But if the early results for the Wolverines have demonstrated anything, it’s that the offensive inconsistencies are as much a part of the team’s identity as the bursts of firepower, and if Michigan is to reach its potential, it must figure out how to attack every at-bat like it attacked the first inning against Wichita State.

“It’s a contagious thing,” Hutchins said. “And in the Wichita State game, we were very contagious. … The key is that we need to just, it’s not always gonna come easy, (we need to) be contagious. We always have to have a positive mindset.”