In 2020, the Michigan softball team was in the field for a total 157 and two-thirds innings. Two pitchers, then-junior Meghan Beaubien and then-sophomore Alex Storako, were on the rubber for all but nine of those innings.
The Wolverines were able to rely on the duo to shoulder that load partially due to their consistency — a 1.52 and 2.43 ERA for Beaubien and Storako, respectively — and partially due to normal-length three to four game series against different opponents.
This year, that’s not the case.
Playing an all Big Ten schedule, Michigan opens up its first two weekends in a bubble located in Leesburg, Fla. where it will play six games over the course of three days each weekend. That’s a double header each day from Friday to Sunday.
After the bubbled portion of the season ends, each weekend back at home field sites is a four game slate against the same opponent. Strong hitters with a keen eye would have a field day facing off against the same two pitchers four games in a row.
So, the Wolverines need much more than nine total innings from their bullpen pitchers if they hope to have a successful season on the rubber.
“It’s a lot of innings,” Beaubien told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I’m anticipating more people getting innings and leaning on the whole staff, especially with the new format of the season. Being able to lean on the whole staff of pitchers is gonna be a determining factor of our success in the Big Ten.”
“I agree with (Beaubien),” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins added. “We’ve got five kids and I expect that bullpen is going to be pretty busy.”
Of the remaining three pitchers on the roster, two stepped foot on the rubber last year — then-freshmen Lauren Esman and Chandler Dennis.
As far as Esman goes, her two innings last season aren’t nearly enough to discern who she is as a pitcher, and she spent most of the year as a utility player. She’ll likely still have a role as a utility player this year, but her time spent as a pitcher will certainly increase.
Dennis is more set in a strictly pitching role. In her seven innings in the circle, she allowed seven earned runs — not a great statline, but just seven innings isn’t enough to make definite judgements on a pitcher in her first year, and her outings weren’t entirely poor.
Still, improvement is necessary for Dennis to be the option the Wolverines need her to be. Hutchins, at least, believes she has seen that out of her.
“She’s a much different player this year and she’s definitely settled in,” Hutchins said. “She’s making great strides.”
Beaubien echoed much of the same, along with pinpointing that she feels Dennis now knows how to make adjustments; and in Beaubien’s experience, that’s extremely important.
The last member of the pitching staff, senior Sarah Schaefer, is both crucial to the team’s success and somewhat of an enigma. Schaefer pitched 62 and a third innings her freshman year, posting a formidable 1.57 ERA. As a sophomore, her performance fell off, and she only threw 17 and two-thirds innings with a less-than-stellar 3.17 ERA. Last year, she wasn’t called on to throw a single pitch.
As the only other pitcher besides Beaubien and Storako with true experience, her performance will be vital.
“Boy do we need Sarah Schaefer to have her year,” Hutchins said. “We need Sarah Schaefer badly to give us her best and to contain opponents.”
If Schaefer were able to return to her freshman form, or close to it, Michigan might be in a lot less of a pinch than it looks at present. A third, reliable pitcher with in-game experience might just put the Wolverines over the edge against the opponents on their Big Ten-only schedule.
With its first six-game series starting this Friday, Michigan’s seemingly shallow pitching staff must forge its way forward without relying only on a Beaubien and Storako one-two punch.
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