Tien Le: Was it worth it?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018 - 10:26pm

Junior second baseman Faith Canfield contributed to the team's complacency that led to a lackluster season finish.

Junior second baseman Faith Canfield contributed to the team's complacency that led to a lackluster season finish. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

By no means was the 2017-18 season disappointing for the Michigan softball team — after all, it amassed a 44-13 overall record and won the Big Ten outright. But for the expectations, for the effort, for the bitter ending, was it worth it?

The team collected 18 and 15-game win streaks only to go on to lose six of its last 11 games. After going on a tear through the Big Ten regular season, fixing their non-conference record after a rocky start and playing at what looked to be their full potential, the late season collapse reeked of one thing — complacency.

***

The negative change for the Wolverines most notably occurred starting on Apr. 28, when they faced off against Indiana. After a dominant run that only saw one loss in 15 Big Ten games, Michigan looked prime to run away with the title, maybe even by winning out the rest of the games.

That all changed when the Hoosiers came up to bat at the bottom of the ninth inning.

In fact, on three separate occasions throughout the game, the Wolverines let up for a moment that would give Indiana a chance. And for every opportunity Michigan gave, Indiana took.

After building a 4-0 lead entering the bottom of the fourth, the Wolverines saw the short-lived gap close to one in the blink of eye. By the time the team took note of the ensuing threat, it was too late. Indiana had tied the game at the last possible second — in the seventh inning with two outs.

Though adjustments were made — pulling senior right-hander Tera Blanco for freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien, the team's ace — the damage had been done. The game was headed to extra innings where Michigan would eventually fall in the ninth to a walk-off homer. Had Michigan not looked so dominant on defense all season and all game before the collapse, perhaps it could have been waved off as just one team getting the better of another in a heated match.

But it’s safe to say, after the rest of the season played out, this game was no outlier. There was no one-time error or undeniable excuse that would allow the team to play it off as a fluke, a short-straw drawn. It was a breakdown.

“I felt that we might’ve just played on our heels a little bit,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “We had several opportunities to keep scoring, and we left eleven runners on base. And it just allowed them to stay confident that they were within striking distance. Whether it’s at-bats or whether it was on the mound and we weren’t really –– we had to go for the kill when we had the opportunity to do it.”

The lack of a final blow for the kill was no act of mercy. They had the athleticism. They had the talent. It was the mentality that led to the decline in level of the Wolverines’ play, the feeling of safety that followed a Goliath facing David. This was the team that had commanded a 5-1 win against the Hoosiers just a day before. This was the team that had won five games before the win against Indiana by a minimum of six runs. This was a then-39-7 team that held a 4-0 lead against a sub-.500 team.

It wasn’t just getting outplayed. It was complacency that left the team at the mercy of its opposition.

Until that point, Michigan had held its opponents to four or fewer runs a game — even in its losses. But just like that, the Wolverines let up five runs in the back half of a game they had under control. It was a loss many deemed would be a wake-up call. And it was, but only for a single game. The mental rut continued as Michigan would lose 8-2 against Western Michigan in their worse loss of the year.

***

Just when doubt crept in, the Wolverines found it in them to dispel it just as quickly. After a statement 8-0 five-inning win in East Lansing, Michigan looked like it had overcome its demons — even more so when late-game heroics from freshman designated-hitter Lou Allan helped turn the tide in a tense 3-2 win against Ohio State.

And at the very apex of the season, the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes — a commanding five-inning 8-0 win on Senior Day — to clinch the Big Ten outright, returning to form after a one-year absence from the title.

“Last year, it was tough,” said junior second baseman Faith Canfield. “So I think setting out this year, we really wanted it, and it was rough. Don’t get me wrong, it was really hard, but it feels good. It feels really good.”

And as high as a feel-good high can go, there are also disappointing lows. Ironically, the Wolverines felt those lows when they allowed season-highs in runs and errors in their final game against Ohio State. While meaningless in every aspect but pride, it’s astonishing not why the loss occurred, but how.

A five-inning run-rule home loss was the first time in over a decade that that occurred. The sold-out crowd, which was deafening the day before, was dead silent as early as the first inning. Nothing went right, even if the team didn’t need it to at the moment.

After all, win or loss, they already clinched the first seed in the Big Ten Tournament, secured a winning series record against their rival and proved themselves capable of dealing with the Big Ten’s biggest threats.

But the fact remains that the team faced a bad loss for the last regular season game and just before the postseason. From here, it comes down to which route the team takes: does the humiliating loss light the fire for a fierce response or do they fall into the trap of continuing on the negative momentum? And most importantly, are they satisfied with winning the Big Ten, or do they have the motivation and aspirations to take them all the way?

As Hutchins noted, confidence is the most important thing in the closing hours of the season.

However, mentality is just as important in order to find postseason success. Michigan proved it just didn’t have either.

“We think (winning the Big Ten is) a great accomplishment, but it’s not the most important accomplishment,” Hutchins said after the Buckeyes’ loss. “I spoke a little before the game on if we’re gonna settle. Are we just going to be the Big Ten Champion, and I’d like to see us hungry again to get to the World Series... We didn’t look like we had any hunger tonight.”

Hunger is what fuels middle-of-the-pack teams to the top. It’s what pushes the best of the best to be even better. And it was the one thing Michigan seemed to lack.

***

Despite having a lot on their plate, the Wolverines looked like they’ve had their fill.

A bounce back year. A young team exceeding expectations. A Big Ten title. It felt like Michigan had accomplished what it had set out to do. What more could it ask for?

Because a successful postseason looked completely out of the picture.

The Wolverines completely botched their opening game in the Big Ten Tournament with a 7-0 loss to the Spartans. It looked like the lack of hunger from the final regular season game carried over to the tournament, as the team wasn't playing up to its Big Ten record — the best in the conference. And it didn’t stop there.

Complacency only carries so far after the accomplishment. But well within the deep postseason, Michigan still looked unmotivated, unable to conjure any spark on offense and barely able to get by on defense.

After another crushing loss in the first round against Notre Dame, Michigan looked completely finished. There were no highs to get complacent on. It was just falling action and a conclusion. For all the exposition — the preseason expectations for a talented, young team, the rising action, the growth and development throughout season’s success and the climax. The thrills of a title and the aftermath.

It’s all celebratory until it isn’t. The Wolverines were thrown one final lifeline — their last chance in the double elimination NCAA Regional — where they fell victim to the complacency that plagued them in the latter half of the season. After five scoreless innings against the Fighting Irish, the Michigan defense, for the most part, looked back in action. Three hits through those five innings were all Notre Dame could muster up, all resulting in stranded runners.

Then, in a moment of hope in an extendedly bleak period, Michigan broke open the scoring with a sacrifice flyout that pushed Canfield home. And just like the scoring drought, the tension in the dugout broke as well. Seeing the runner score offered some resemblance of relief for the team that was backed into a corner.

The Fighting Irish took advantage of the lapse in tension. In the bottom half of the sixth, Michigan collapsed to let Notre Dame score two to flip the lead. It was as if all defensive focus that was so heavily emphasized early in the game had dissipated after the first run was scored. The pressure was on the Wolverines, and just as they had all game before the sixth inning, they couldn’t find an answer.

***

There was never any doubt that this young team would have weaknesses in experience. But the problem was never about physicality or talent. It was all mental, and it was something the underclassmen experienced too late.

The veterans in the team failed to notice — despite all the culture change, all the fun and simplifications they added to make the game easier — that the problem was getting too high after wins and failing to recover from the lows after losses. It’s simple. The team lacked the hunger to take them all the way. Sure, they exceeded preseason expectations and won the Big Ten title. But to end as badly as they did, was it worth it?

Le can be reached at tntle@umich.edu and on Twitter @tientrle

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