When Alex Sobczak launched a three-run blast in the Wolverines’ home-opener, the senior first baseman exchanged words with Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins while rounding third base.
“It’s about time you swung,” Hutchins recalled telling her as she trotted home. “With runners on base in that RBI spot, we want to put the bat on the ball.”
Through the first month of the season, the Wolverines have searched every nook and cranny of the country for such swings.
Despite their efforts from Tampa, Fla. to Tempe, Ariz, Michigan returned from each road trip without a season-altering revelation at the plate. With multiple slap-hitters in the lineup, the team primarily relied on small ball to manufacture runs in its five weeks away from Ann Arbor.
For much of those five weeks, power was hard to come by. Home runs came few and far between — in 22 games, the team slugged just seven.
But when Michigan took the diamond at Alumni Field last week, the switch flipped. In the seven home games since, the Wolverines have launched 12 long balls en route to seven consecutive victories. With Michigan’s newfound power, those margins were no coincidence.
Senior second baseman Faith Canfield homered off the left-field flagpole in the team’s first home at-bat, paving the way for her teammates to follow. Since Canfield’s long ball, each one of the team’s regulars — with the exception of slap-hitting sophomore shortstop Natalia Rodriguez — has gone yard.
Yes, the influx of home runs has come against weaker pitching staffs than the Wolverines saw in their previous non-conference slate. But the fact that eight of Hutchins’ regulars flexed pop in their bat over a stretch of just seven games suggests it isn’t a fluke.
“(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.”
This may be a hot streak, but it could be a permanent change. Michigan has added a new dimension to its offense. The team’s recent slugging torrid is rooted in a roster-wide mindset change at the plate, not a dozen fly balls that just caught a gust of wind. Hutchins has said such things, mind you.
In 2017 and 2018, the Wolverines also had power surges that looked sustainable — only to fade away in the heat of the schedule.
Since the graduation of Sierra Romero and Sierra Lawrence in 2016, power hitting has seemingly eluded the program’s offensive arsenal. The duo combined for 30 home runs that season, but only one player has recorded more than nine in a season since.
As a team, Michigan amassed 84 home runs in 2016. In the two seasons since, their respective totals of 44 and 54 have fallen well short. Entering last week’s homestand, this year’s group was on pace for just 23 homers.
“Obviously when Sierra Romero and Sierra Lawrence stepped out, we became more of a consistency team than a power hitting team,” junior third baseman Madison Uden told The Daily at a preseason media availability on Feb. 5. “We’re not so much of a power hitting team, but who says you can’t get the job done with consistency?”
That approach didn’t work, to say the least, mostly because the Wolverines struggled to achieve consistency. They mustered a lackluster 3.59 runs per game in their 22 road contests — including an uninspiring 16 total runs in eight games against ranked opponents — before last week’s turnaround.
After a two-year hiatus from mashing long balls, Michigan has returned to its old ways. The same old ways propelled it to a No. 2 national ranking. The same old ways made Romero the clear-cut favorite for National Player of the Year honors in 2016. The same old ways made the program an annual staple in the Women’s College World Series.
This year’s Big Ten race is shaping up to be the tightest in recent memory. Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern all pose formidable threats to the Wolverines, who have won 10 of the last 11 regular season titles. With three conference foes ranked ahead of them in the national poll, adding another championship to that historic run looks like it may be an uphill battle.
But after seeing the team’s reinvigorated approach at the plate, Michigan has itself an offensive revival, consistent pitching and coaching brain trust — a trio of advantages that could make that climb manageable.
If this team was going to have a kryptonite, it was going to be its lack of power on offense. But after watching the Wolverines plate an astronomical 64 runs in seven games, one thing has become certain: Michigan’s key to winning the conference once again lies in its power, something the rest of the nation thought it left in the past.
“I love home runs,” Hutchins said. “They’re like a 3-point shot in basketball — it’s a nice thing to have in your back pocket.”
It was about time Sobczak and her teammates swung as such.
Dash can be reached on Twitter at @danieldash428 or by email at email@example.com.