Last Tuesday, Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins promised that her team would be “excited as hell” to play its first home series of the season.
When the 25th-ranked Wolverines took the diamond at Alumni Field, her players backed up their coach’s guarantee with a pair of wins over Kent State — the final scores being 18-1 and 8-1 — en route to the team’s first series sweep.
After putting an exclamation point on its arrival in Ann Arbor by run-ruling the Golden Flashes (6-14) in Thursday’s contest, Michigan (15-10) continued to pour it on Kent State during Sunday’s doubleheader. Hutchins’ crew put on a first-inning hit parade, plating a season-high 10 runs while making the basepaths look like a public mall’s merry-go-round.
Senior second baseman Faith Canfield, who entered the game with a .500 batting average in her 32 at-bats in the month of March, drew a leadoff four-pitch walk to get the ball rolling. After another walk, the table was set for freshman left fielder Lexie Blair to drive in the game’s first run with an opposite-field double.
It didn’t take long for the Wolverines to triple their lead, as senior first baseman Alex Sobczak followed suit with a double of her own in the next at-bat, scoring senior center fielder Natalie Peters and Blair. The hit chased Golden Flashes’ starting pitcher Andrea Scali from the circle before she even recorded an out.
Kent State coach Eric Oakley turned to junior right-hander Madi Huck, a decision which soon proved fatal. Huck allowed a single to senior infielder Kenzie Nemitz in her first battle, bringing up junior third baseman Madison Uden with a pair of runners on base. Michigan hoped the familiar setting of Alumni Field would help one of its captains break out of an early-season slump, so it wasn’t surprising to see a dugout full of smiles when Uden laced a line drive over the second baseman’s head. The Golden Flashes fielded the ball before it could get through the right-center gap, but that didn’t stop Hutchins from waving Sobczak and Nemitz home, giving Michigan a five-run lead.
The hit was the beginning of a successful day at the plate for Uden, who collected four hits in eight plate appearances during the series.
“I feel like the (struggles) are definitely getting behind me,” Uden said. “I worked a lot this week with Hutch and (associate head coach Bonnie Tholl) trying to get my feel back. I feel like I’m seeing the ball a lot better, so it feels good. For me, it’s about seeing the ball and seeing it deep into my barrel longer and just feeling good in the box. I’ve been struggling a little bit on the mental side, especially early in the season with being able to execute and get things done for my team, so for me, it’s mentally feeling good when I get up there and knowing I’m going to get it done.”
Added Hutchins: “I felt she had a great week of practice and felt she was present. These kids, when they’re present, that’s when they play their best. … Madison’s a good player for us, so we need her to stay present.”
Later in the inning, Blair stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded. As if the Wolverines hadn’t already broken the game open, Blair deposited a ball into the right field bleachers. When it landed, the freshman’s first career grand slam gave her team a 10-0 lead and put the nail in Kent State’s coffin.
The next time Michigan made its way through the order, Peters, like Blair did two innings prior, dug into the left-handed batter’s box. Following Blair’s lead, Peters got ahold of a pitch in her wheelhouse, driving it over the Alumni Field fence. The senior’s first career grand slam mirrored the freshman’s first, perhaps a metaphorical passing of the torch in the Wolverines’ outfield corps. Each player recorded six RBIs in the game.
Peters’ long ball gave Michigan an 18-run cushion — one that eventually became an 18-1 final score in a shortened contest by the run-rule. A pair of sophomore pitchers — left-hander Meghan Beaubien and right-hander Sarah Schaefer — combined to hold the Golden Flashes to just four hits.
After an early-afternoon bloodbath, the second leg of Sunday’s twin bill was much closer. Freshman right-hander Alex Storako surrendered the game’s first run on a controversial call at home plate in the top half of the second inning, in which senior catcher Katie Alexander was called for blocking the dish when a Kent State runner attempted to slide behind her. Despite an animated debate with home plate umpire John Schaefer, Hutchins was unsuccessful in selling her case.
The Wolverines’ offense remained dormant until Alexander stepped to the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning. Alexander lifted a long fly ball to left field, scoring Uden on a sacrifice fly. Two batters later, Canfield poked a two-run single through the middle of the infield to put Michigan on top for good.
From that point on, Storako found a short rhythm in her Ann Arbor debut. The freshman carved up the Golden Flashes, keeping them hitless until the sixth inning. But when Storako worked herself into a bases-loaded jam after allowing a pair of singles and a hit batsman, Hutchins decided to call upon Beaubien to finish the game.
Beaubien entered the circle and promptly sent sophomore utility Brenna Brownfield back to the dugout with a strikeout. With the punchout, the Wolverines put Kent State’s sixth-inning threat to bed.
When it came time to bat in the bottom half of the inning, Michigan received a pair of insurance runs from its two senior captains. Alexander launched a high-arching home run to left field for her fourth long ball of the year, while Canfield’s deep line drive found its way onto the other side of the center field fence.
Later in the inning, Nemitz blasted a deep fly ball to right field for her first career home run. The senior’s three-run shot, the first of her career and the team’s fifth of the day, extended the lead to 8-1 — the game’s eventual final score.
“(Home runs) mean we’re swinging with better confidence,” Hutchins said. “If there’s anything that’s improved, it’s our presence and our confidence. We’ve been a talented team all along, but now we’re playing with the confidence we need. We were a whole different team this weekend, so we’re moving in a good direction. But we haven’t arrived.”