When sophomore catcher Katie Alexander visits senior right-hander Megan Betsa in the circle between pitches, the message is usually simple: just breathe.
As complex as a softball pitcher’s throwing technique can be, that’s what the pair focuses on in the middle of pressure-cooker games.
Alexander’s pointer comes from an offseason yoga program, which was originally intended to relieve lingering pain in Betsa’s back and shoulder. Instead, yoga has become the basis for Alexander’s fix to any fluster the Michigan softball team’s ace might experience.
“When (Betsa) breathes and focuses on spin, then it happens for her,” Alexander said.
Even in the best of performances for Betsa, Alexander’s presence is consistent.
In the seventh inning of a nearly flawless March effort against Kent State, Betsa became visibly frustrated after walking a batter to bring the game-tying run to the plate.
But there was Alexander, jogging out to the circle to tell the starter exactly what she needed to hear. Betsa subsequently struck out the final two batters of the game, completing the shutout and her fourth-career no-hitter.
“Katie has gotten comfortable communicating with (the pitchers) and letting them know what they need to do better,” said pitching coach Jen Brundage. “Anytime the catcher takes charge and can go out to the mound to calm the pitcher down, it’s a good thing and a sign of maturity in that catcher.”
Added Michigan coach Carol Hutchins: “Catchers are selfless. They’re there to make the pitchers feel good. Tell her what she needs to know and tell her what she needs to hear. You want them to beat as one heart — that’s for sure.”
Reaping the benefits of Alexander’s mound visits, Betsa is on the best stretch of her career. In the past three weeks, she’s tallied seven complete-game shutouts, two no-hitters and three-straight Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors.
As the season progresses, the chemistry between the pair on and off the field continues to grow. Though the pair are two years apart, Alexander considers Betsa “a best friend.”
That relationship is apparent throughout their starts together, as Betsa and Alexander are almost always the first to high-five each other after the final out of an inning.
But that chemistry is still relatively young.
Alexander caught just 13 games last season, spending most of the season as the bullpen catcher behind both junior Aidan Falk and sophomore Alex Sobczak. After Falk moved back to first base this season, however, a battle between Alexander and Sobczak ensued.
And Sobczak — using 29 appearances from 2016 to boost her resume — was called upon to start six of the first seven games for the Wolverines.
Recently, however, Alexander’s hot bat convinced Hutchins to make her the go-to catcher. In 23 starts, Alexander has hit .293 with eight RBI and a homerun, besting Sobczak’s .200 batting average.
“Katie totally took advantage of her opportunities,” Hutchins said. “She’s provided some great offense, and she’s a great spark. She took over that position.”
Behind the plate, Alexander excels at blocking pitches in the dirt — essential to catching for Betsa, who bounces breaking balls to garner swinging third strikes.
“She does a really nice job smothering the ball,” Hutchins said. “That’s a big quality when you have a pitcher like Betsa, who lives off throwing it in the dirt and making them swing.”
But to prepare for a larger role this season, Alexander needed to improve defensively, putting a strong focus on framing pitches and adjusting to Betsa’s repertoire.
Alexander spent most of the summer practicing with Sobczak, working on not tipping off Betsa’s rise ball by “going up with the pitch” rather than giving a high target prior to the pitch.
That, along with an increased focus on framing pitches, has allowed Betsa to nip corners and notch a nation-leading 221 strikeouts.
“Whether it’s her body position or the way she catches the ball, she’s getting a lot more calls back there,” Betsa said. “It’s helping me out a lot.”
Thanks to Alexander, Betsa’s transition to a new catcher for the second-straight season has occurred with no apparent hitches.
But if the ace does endure any problems in the circle, she knows Alexander will visit with a straightforward message.