The Michigan softball team is ranked No. 19 in the nation and stacked with solid players up and down its roster, but has continued to underperform through the first five weeks of the season.
As the Wolverines (14-7-1) prepare for their home opener this week against Bowling Green, contributions from both experienced players and relative newcomers will be needed to reverse what Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has deemed a season where her team is just “not playing the game of softball.”
The Daily breaks down the Wolverines position by position to take an in-depth look at their expected starting lineup and pitching rotation, both of which seek to replace graduated stars who anchored Michigan’s two consecutive trips to the Women’s College World Series.
A fall season without softball in order to heal nagging injuries helped boost senior right-hander Megan Betsa to a new high so far this year. Betsa returns to the No. 1 starting role and has already demonstrated her prowess in the circle early on. While a 6-5 record may look unnatural for a pitcher who went 28-5 last year, it’s not indicative of her production.
Betsa boasts a stellar earned run average of 1.99 and ranks third in the nation with 134 strikeouts in 14 appearances — on pace for her best-ever season total. She has also reduced her walk total and pitch count, both of which have been major concerns in the past. Her 31 walks in 77 innings and 4.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio put her on track for career-best marks in both categories.
With the graduation of right-hander Sara Driesenga, the Wolverines have looked to Tera Blanco as a dependable starter behind Betsa in the rotation. And that’s exactly what the current Big Ten Pitcher of the Week has done, posting an 8-2 record and a 2.08 ERA. The junior right-hander is coming off her best outing of the season, striking out a career-high 13 batters and allowing just two hits, one unearned run and no walks in a 5-1 win against Kent State last Sunday.
Rounding out the rotation is sophomore Leah Crockett, who has allowed a grim seven hits and six runs in just three innings of work.
The past two weekends have given clarity to the starting catcher role heading into Michigan’s first homestand. After being behind the plate for a majority of the early season — with juniors Aidan Falk and Amanda Vargas receiving intermittent starts — sophomore Alex Sobczak’s performance declined. She batted a dismal .194 with just six hits, committed two errors and allowed seven passed balls. That left the door open for the starting job, and sophomore Katie Alexander rose to the occasion. Starting nine of the last 10 games, Alexander notched 12 hits in 36 at-bats and scored five times, with no errors and only one passed ball.
When not in the circle, Blanco starts at first base for her third straight year. Though touted as one of the purest Wolverine hitters in previous seasons, she has struggled thus far, hitting .218 with just two extra-base hits and a .291 slugging percentage — the second lowest among players who have started more than seven games. For context, at this time last year, Blanco enjoyed a .426 batting average and .607 slugging percentage.
With Blanco pitching almost half the games so far, Falk has primarily taken over the duties at first, hitting .317 and leading the team with 10 extra-base hits, including seven doubles. In the field, Falk ranks third on the team with 55 putouts and has yet to make an error through 21 games.
With the graduation of one of Michigan’s all-time greats, Sierra Romero, sophomore Faith Canfield earned the job as her replacement at second base. Canfield has proven her value as a starter, sporting a .333 batting average and tying for the most home runs with four, already besting her total from last year. A go-to utility player as a freshman, Canfield transformed into a more consistent player and has been a bright spot despite the Wolverines’ offensive struggles, ranking among Michigan’s top three in doubles, runs, total bases and runs batted in.
Though she is in the midst of a characteristic early season slump — hitting a disappointing .261 — senior Lindsay Montemarano’s track record of turning it around at the plate and dominant defensive command gives her a strong footing at third. Coming off a junior season with career-bests in seven offensive categories — earning All-Big Ten second team and Big Ten All-Defensive Team honors — Montemarano could be primed for another solid season once she starts hitting her stride.
Senior Abby Ramirez continues to lead the infield in her fourth year starting at shortstop, putting up Michigan’s third best batting average at .373, and appears on pace to surpass her season-high in hits with 25 to date. Ramirez’s presence toward the top of the order affords the Wolverines quality at-bats and speed, as she already has eight steals in 10 attempts — matching her career-best as a freshman.
After a major drop in offensive production last year, senior center fielder Kelly Christner looks like she has returned to her sophomore form when she was unanimously selected to the All-Big Ten first team. Entering the season with an attitude simply preaching “fun,” Christner translated this newfound mentality into a stellar campaign. The second-year captain ranks first on the team in 10 offensive categories, including a career-high .476 batting clip and a .730 slugging percentage. She appears ready to improve upon her lackluster 2016 season in which she hit six home runs and 33 RBI through 59 games, hitting four home runs and 20 RBI through just 22 games this year.
Christner leads an outfield that includes two new faces — sophomores Natalie Peters and Courtney Richardson — replacing graduated seniors Sierra Lawrence and Kelsey Susalla. Peters has effectively transitioned into her leadoff role after being a utility player as a freshman. The speedy slap hitter is hitting .400, second highest on the team, with 24 hits and 15 runs. Richardson, despite a .257 batting average, has seen spurts of success at the plate, including a three-run home run and five-hit weekend in the season’s opening tournament.