Michigan versus Ohio State. As supporters of both schools know, it doesn’t get any bigger than that. The connotation is understood, and the ensuing battle is expected to be fierce and relentless.
While any series between the Wolverines and Buckeyes carries an added significance, when it shifts to the softball diamond this weekend, this one carries even more meaning than a heated rivalry could muster alone.
No. 2 Michigan (8-2 Big Ten, 30-4 overall) is set to take on No. 23 Ohio State (9-1-1, 25-8-1) in a battle for first place in the Big Ten.
Both teams are equipped with potent offenses that have powered their successful seasons. The Wolverines rank second nationally in scoring average, third in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage and home runs per game.
The Buckeyes rank near the top of the conference in multiple offensive categories as well, staking claim to a .322 batting average, 292 runs scored, 48 home runs and a .424 on-base percentage.
But Michigan’s bats have cooled off lately. The Wolverines scored just 13 runs against Nebraska last weekend after posting more than double that amount with 31 against Indiana the weekend before.
The offense will need to rediscover its earlier form, especially since Ohio State boasts a stingy pitching staff. Buckeye pitcher Shelby Hursh has a 2.09 ERA with 109 strikeouts in 90.1 innings pitched, and pitcher Lena Springer has a 2.73 ERA in 43.2 innings pitched.
If Michigan needed a practice run to prepare for the type of challenge the Buckeyes present, its 3-0 win over Michigan State Wednesday could serve as an important lesson. The Wolverines gained valuable experience scraping together a victory in a close contest despite early struggles at the plate.
As junior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano pointed out, the Wolverines need games like the one against the Spartans to prove they are capable of sticking together to pull out a narrow win even if their offense doesn’t score in the manner it is accustomed to.
“We do a really good job of, no matter what type of game we’re in, we try to keep the same process and try not to put too much pressure (on ourselves) even if it’s a close game or we’re ahead by a lot,” Montemarano said. “(Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) always says, ‘Don’t give at-bats away, because you don’t know how many at-bats you’re going to have left in the season.’ ”
After motivating her team to victory over Michigan State with a particularly impassioned huddle before the Wolverines’ fifth-inning rally, Hutchins knows it will be up to the players to decide the outcome of the series against Ohio State.
“We’re really capable of taking on the challenge, but we have to be excited about the challenge and not afraid of it,” Hutchins said. “They’re coming here to beat us, so I hope we go on the field to beat them. It’s a battle. … You have to attack the challenge.”
It’s Michigan versus Ohio State in a battle for first place in the Big Ten. The Wolverines shouldn’t need any more motivation than that.