It’s become routine.
With both junior right-hander Tera Blanco and senior right-hander Megan Betsa finding their grooves on the mound, the pitching rotation — in which the two pitchers alternate games — has become something of a formality.
The last time either pitcher started two straight games in the same series came back in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge last month against North Carolina State and Notre Dame, when Blanco started each of the final two games of the four-game tournament. Betsa has thrown more innings, 91.1 to Blanco’s 80.2. But that disparity largely came in the early season, when Blanco was still adjusting to pitching regularly and often didn’t last as deep into games.
With a pitching schedule that rigid, it becomes noteworthy when Michigan coach Carol Hutchins decides to stray from the norm.
Wednesday was such a day.
A day after starting against Bowling Green, Blanco, not Betsa, trotted out to the circle in the top of the first inning against Eastern Michigan.
With back-to-back games against two Mid-American Conference foes and Betsa having some minor back tightness, Hutchins identified an opportunity to give Blanco more innings. Pitching Blanco in each game, she believed, would be mutually beneficial for Blanco, the team and Betsa.
“Megan’s back kind of acted up over the weekend a little bit. She was tight yesterday. Certainly, pitching in the cold is tough … we were a little concerned with that,” Hutchins said. “It’s good for Tera to have to carry the load. It’s good for Tera to have to pitch two days in a row.”
From Blanco’s standpoint, the decision makes logical sense. As she continues to become acquainted with her role as the second starter — a new role for her in 2017 — more innings and more reps become valuable commodities.
Blanco has already proven more reliable of late, becoming a more efficient pitcher. Since Feb. 26, Blanco has posted a 2.03 earned-run average with a 7.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in over 40 innings pitched, compared to a 2.73 ERA and 1.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio before. With the conference season beginning this weekend against Penn State, Blanco finding her form to complement Betsa has been a positive development for the Wolverines’ pitching staff.
Perhaps, though, the decision to start Blanco says more about how the team feels about Betsa going forward. Betsa has thrown over 200 innings each of the last two seasons and seems on pace to do the same in 2017. Since Betsa has dealt with lingering injuries in previous seasons, Hutchins has been open about needing to keep her healthy throughout the length of the season. While back stiffness tends to be relatively minor, Hutchins deemed it not worthy of risking, given the environment and opponent.
Saving four innings in a March game may sound trivial in the grand scheme of the season.
What may seem trivial now, though, could loom large if it ensures a healthy Megan Betsa in May.