The No. 23 Michigan softball team that will take the field this weekend looks entirely different than the one that kicked off Big Ten play.
After the Wolverines slid early, dropping four of their first five conference bouts, they were confronted by injuries, absences, and slumps galore. They have bounced back, but still struggle with inconsistency.
The Daily will break down these changes and what Michigan’s roster will look like as Big Ten play wraps up.
Entering Big Ten play, it seemed like Michigan coach Carol Hutchins could continue to rely on the one-two punch of senior right-hander Alex Storako and fifth-year senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien. But as both have struggled at times, Hutchins has looked to two freshman hurlers — freshman right-hander Lauren Derkowski and freshman utility player Annabelle Widra — to pick up the slack.
Storako entered the Wolverines’ first matchup against Nebraska on Mar. 25 in dominant form, looking like the clear No. 1 pitcher in the lineup. Since then though, she has slipped.
Known as a riseball pitcher that throws large amounts of both strikeouts for and home runs against, Storako has let in far more of the latter as of late. In her last 12 appearances, she has allowed 12 home runs, while she had only given up two in the season before then. Still, she puts together quality starts consistently and will remain the No. 1 pitcher.
Beaubien’s season has taken the opposite trajectory from Storako’s. Struggling early to find her form, Beaubien failed to make a splash early on. Recently though, she has found her offspeed pitch and managed a new consistency.
Given both aces’ struggles, Derkowski and Widra have been given chances to prove they belong in the permanent pitching rotation.
After an early absence, Widra has seen a sharp increase in mound appearances. She has taken the circle three times in the last week, but has yet to log an appearance longer than three innings.
Derkowski earned a start against then-No. 9 Northwestern, but was replaced by Storako after a rain postponement. Still, Derkowski has logged several quality relief outings. Often taking the circle with runners already in scoring position, Derkowski has shown her level headedness and poise in her ability to escape such innings.
At the moment, Derkowski seems the likely option to make an impact in the circle later in the season, although Storako and Beaubien are still the de facto co-aces.
The Wolverines’ infield has remained largely intact over the course of the season, although there has been some shuffling at second base.
Sophomore utility player Sierra Kersten had made the position her own for nearly all of March, but recently lost the spot to graduate utility player Melina Livingston. Kersten’s recent slump coincided with Livingston’s steady rise to form, so Kersten will likely be relegated to a reserve role for the moment.
Freshman infielder Ella McVey has remained the starting shortstop, although her hitting struggles have thrown that into question in recent weeks. McVey is the best fielding shortstop in the Wolverines’ arsenal and that makes up for her quiet bat.
Leadership and steady bats have helped fifth-year senior third baseman Taylor Bump and junior first baseman Lauren Esman have both kept their positions secure all season.
Michigan’s outfield has remained in flux this season. Senior outfielder Lexie Blair’s injury has meant that Hutchins had to find a way to fill her shoes.
Currently, freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler has adopted left field. Sieler made splashes earlier in the season with high-quality fielding and athletic catches, but failed to make a difference with her bat. After getting another chance due to Blair’s injury, she has capitalized, batting over .300 since her return to the lineup.
Graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt has remained one of the linchpins of Michigan’s offense, and shifted to take the center field role. Burkhardt is batting .410, and provides consistent baserunning from the leadoff spot.
Junior Audrey LeClair has moved from left field to right, but remains a mainstay in the lineup as well. LeClair has had a recent surge in form, and is also a source of energy for the Wolverines.
In last week’s weekend series against Maryland, Blair made several pinch-hitting appearances, but it seems that Hutchins is waiting until she is 100% ready before fully integrating her back into the lineup. The question is which outfielder will give up her spot for the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year.
As of right now, the logical answer seems to be Sieler. Even though she has progressed as a batter recently, she is being outperformed by LeClair, and LeClair adds more leadership. Sieler should remain a significant contributor though, either in a platoon format with LeClair or as a pinch-hitter.
Widra started strong, and continues to make a difference with her bat. Her fielding is still developing, so until she can mitigate her relatively high error count, she will likely remain the designated player.
Below is the likely starting lineup for the weekend series against Ohio State.
1. Kristina Burkhardt (CF)
2. Melina Livingston (2B)
3. Hannah Carson (C)
4. Taylor Bump (3B)
5. Annabelle Widra (DP)
6. Lauren Esman (1B)
7. Audrey LeClair (RF)
8. Ellie Sieler (LF)
9. Ella McVey (SS)