Bottom of the fifth, down three.
That’s the situation Michigan coach Carol Hutchins gives her players. Practice won’t be over until they battle all the way back.
“What do we need?” Hutchins asks.
“We need bases!” comes the response.
As each batter steps up to the plate, the dugout gives a rallying cry: “Be a base!”
Its meaning is simple: Get on base however you can. It’s a mentality Hutchins is trying to instill into her players and a mentality that is starting to carry over into games.
Early in the season, it would be a common sight. The Wolverines would have runners in scoring position. Then, with two strikes, the opposing pitcher would go to her drop-ball. It would dive out of the zone as the batter swung right through. Just like that, the opportunity would vanish.
It’s one of the primary reasons why the Michigan softball team at times struggled to drive in runs. But the slate against Maryland — in which 16 batters walked and six of them eventually came in to score — displayed a team moving in the right direction.
“There were still some at-bats where I thought we swung ourselves out of them,” Hutchins said. “But we’re moving in a better direction. And … I overheard the kids talking before (Saturday’s) game. They wanted to mercy them.
“And I told (them), I said, ‘The only way you’re gonna mercy this team is if you take the free bases they give you.’”
Seven walks and 12 runs later, the Wolverines had their rout of the Terrapins, 12-1.
A strike is a daunting thing, and two of them can be downright terrifying. But learning to face — and maybe even embrace — the strike is a vital lesson for a young team.
“One thing (the coaches) said was, ‘Pick a pitch that you’re gonna swing at,’ ” said junior second baseman Faith Canfield. “So mine personally was, I was swinging at the inside pitch. So if anything’s outside, I wasn’t gonna swing and let it go, until I have two strikes. And so they told everyone that and just pick what pitch you’re gonna swing at and have the discipline to look for that pitch and if it’s not there, be comfortable hitting with two strikes.”
Senior first baseman Tera Blanco is the epitome of that mentality. She thrives off of long at-bats and deep counts, frequently running the count full and fouling off pitches until she finds one she likes. It’s worked — Blanco leads the team in on-base percentage (.490) and slugging percentage (.714).
“You get to see everything that the pitcher throws,” Blanco said. “And it actually helps the dugout to see what pitches (the pitcher) has and everything.”
Added Canfield: “Having long at-bats gives everyone in the dugout confidence, when you’re in that full count and you’re just fighting, it kinda changes the atmosphere and brings the game on your side, no matter what the score is.”
Now, everybody’s buying in and it’s paying dividends.
Be a base. Up in the third inning of Saturday’s game, junior catcher Katie Alexander ran the count to 2-2 before fouling off a pitch with two strikes, taking a ball and finally driving a two-run home run to right center field.
Be a base. Four batters later, with the bases loaded, Canfield fought off a 2-2 pitch to stay alive. She had seen the pitcher’s full arsenal and become comfortable with it. The next two pitches missed the zone, and Canfield’s walk brought in a run.
Be a base. On Sunday in the bottom of the second, Alexander ran the count full. With two strikes, she wasn’t tempted. She took ball four for a walk. Then, freshman designated player Lou Allan blasted her own 3-2 pitch over the fence. Earlier in the at-bat, she’d seen the same pitch and knew it was one she could drive.
As with any relatively young team, plate discipline is still a work in progress for Michigan. But already, Hutchins has begun to see the fruits of her labor. Over the course of the series, nine different players drew walks. Canfield alone took five bases on balls, doubling her previous total. And the veterans and rookies alike waited for their pitches, unfazed by the count.
“I think that we’re just better — we were better at taking pitches and allowing ourselves to get to two strikes,” Hutchins said. “ … It’s taking what they give us. If they throw it down the middle, smack it. If they won’t throw it over the plate, go to first base.”