After more than a month on the road, the No. 19 Michigan softball team will finally play its first games at Alumni Field this weekend.
The Wolverines were inconsistent early, dropping two of their first five games. Since then, the bats have heated up, and though the the offense remains unpredictable, the team has picked up some RPI-boosting wins.
Over the last two weekends, Michigan beat No. 13 Duke and No. 10 Kentucky. Those wins, along with an earlier win against No. 24 Central Florida, are victories the Wolverines can hang their hats on come May.
Still, Michigan sits in the middle of the Big Ten in win percentage up to this point in the season. The team needs continued improvement to win its 23rd Big Ten title in school history.
The Daily breaks down the Wolverines’ lineup in-depth as the team looks forward to a home series against Kent State.
Entering the season as one half of Michigan’s one-two punch in the circle, senior right-hander Alex Storako has distinguished herself as the sole ace at this point in the season. Storako has drawn recognition for her aggressive approach and large amounts of strikeouts, and this season is no different. So far, she has thrown 109 Ks this season, good for sixth in the country.
But the 2021 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year has even further refined her game. In 11 appearances, Storako has recorded 10 wins and zero losses along with four shutouts. Her 0.75 ERA is eye-catching, as is her .138 opposition batting average.
Storako also threw her first no-hitter of her career in an eight inning extra-inning affair against Drake on March 5.
The other side of the one-two punch, graduate left-hander Meghan Beaubien, has struggled out of the gate this season. Beaubien has pitched to a 3.23 ERA so far, a statline far removed from her 1.24 ERA last year. Her struggles have corresponded with a decline in usage, only pitching 30.1 innings to Storako’s 65.1.
With this gap in usage, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has experimented with third options on the circle, namely freshman pitchers Lauren Derkowski and Annabelle Widra.
Derkowski has logged a solid 1.71 ERA in 16.1 innings and seven appearances, and Widra has not given up an earned run in her six appearances and 10.1 innings pitched.
Whether either will take a larger role as the season continues is a question worth monitoring as Big Ten play approaches.
Senior Hannah Carson has taken the lion’s share of reps at catcher so far, though sophomore utility player Keke Tholl has a respectable four starts to her name.
Carson’s .295 average through the first 19 games is similar to her stats in the 2021 season. Carson’s bat has been a spark for the Wolverines offense as of late, with her three home runs and walk-off hit all occurring within the past two weekend tournaments. She has already eclipsed her home run total of two from last year after taking a power-hitting focused role.
Similar to the catcher position, Tholl’s started three games at first base, but the position has primarily been occupied by junior Lauren Esman. Hutchins often looks to find a spot for Tholl in the field, and has experimented with her in multiple spots early in the year.
Esman — mainly a designated player as a sophomore — has worked her way into a permanent role on the field. She has posted the third-best average among the team so far with a .347 batting average, and has secured the five spot in the order. However, she has also posted a team-high four errors so far. Whether her productive bat is worth the defensive risk is a question Hutchins and her staff will continue to grapple with.
Two players have also split time at second base early this season. Widra has taken most of the starts at second, with sophomore Sierra Kersten taking over when Widra pitches. Widra’s .311 average proves she can hang with the faster college game. Look for Kersten to potentially take a bigger role here as Widra begins to adopt a larger pitching workload.
Shortstop has been a far more reliable position in terms of personnel for the Wolverines this season. Freshman Ella McVey is its anchor and has provided an immediate impact with her bat while being perfect on the field as well. McVey has a .310 average through her 19 appearances, but her slap-hitting style hampers her slugging percentage. Still, she has been a mainstay in the lineup, and should keep her position barring unforeseen circumstances.
Fifth-year senior Taylor Bump has remained the primary third baseman early this season, although graduate utility player Melina Livingston, who transferred from Penn State in the offseason, has started a few games. Bump has regressed in the batter’s box this season — her .175 average is a far cry from the .325 she posted last season as one of the team’s go-to hitters. Still, Hutchins has faith in her, and she will look to get back to last year’s form as Big Ten approaches.
Livingston will likely remain as a utility player and substitute for now, though she could begin to take a larger role if Bump’s struggles continue.
The Wolverines’ outfield has been in flux early this season, though Hutchins seems to have recently found a group she likes. In the first few games, freshman Ellie Sieler started in left field, with senior Lexie Blair in center and graduate Kristina Burkhardt in right.
Recently though, junior Audrey LeClair is starting in favor of Sieler, as Sieler’s athleticism and fielding ability hasn’t compensated for her cold batting. Sieler’s .114 average indicates that this switch is permanent, with Sieler likely only seeing action in a substitute capacity until she can right the ship.
This switch also resulted in Blair sliding into left and Burkhardt taking over center-field duties.
Blair has been a shell of herself early, especially when compared to the eye-popping .406 batting average and .632 slugging she posted last season. While starting to find a groove recently and managing to raise her average to a respectable .283, she is no longer the de facto batting leader of the team.
That title has fallen upon Burkhardt. A transfer from North Carolina, Burkhardt is batting a .484 average on .750 slugging, nicely fitting into the team. She also has been the leader of the outfield since moving to center and has yet to make an error.
The designated player spot, typically held by the best hitting backup fielder, has varied a lot early this season. Recently though, Kersten has made the role her own. Batting .323 with an eye-popping .710 slugging percentage, she has occupied the six slot as of late. Other players take over the role on occasion, including Livingston and Tholl, but Kersten has locked down the position at the moment.
Based on the available information, The Daily concludes that this is the most likely lineup for the opening weekend series against Kent State.
1. Lexie Blair (LF)
2. Annabelle Widra (2B)
3. Kristina Burkhardt (CF)
4. Hannah Carson (C)
5. Lauren Esman (1B)
6. Sierra Kersten (DP)
7. Taylor Bump (3B)
8. Audrey LeClair (RF)
9. Ella McVey (SS)
P Alex Storako