Over the past two seasons, the Michigan softball team’s success in the circle has largely fallen on the shoulders of one athlete: junior left-hander Meghan Beaubien.
But this season, as sophomore right-hander Alex Storako comes into her own and the Wolverines welcome two more pitchers onto their roster, Beaubien may be able to give her arm a rest from time to time.
For the first time in 20 years, the Wolverines’ pitching staff now boasts five pitchers: Beaubien, Storako, freshman left-hander Lauren Esman, freshman right-hander Chandler Dennis and junior right-hander Sarah Schaefer. But with so many of Michigan’s options untested and unseasoned, it’s too early to tell what impact the added depth will have.
Esman was ranked the No. 65 recruit nationally by FloSoftball in the 2019 class. As a senior in high school, she posted an ERA of 0.42 and racked up 341 strikeouts in 148.2 innings.
But collegiate play is a whole different ballgame. Pitchers face a different caliber of batter and a new level of pressure. For Storako, it took a full year until she felt like she’d found her personality in the circle. Esman may be a similar case.
“We haven’t utilized Esman as much going into this part of the year,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “We’ve been kind of working her slow. We’re picking that up a little bit. She’s not as far along as we might need her to be, so she might have to get on the fast-track.”
For Dennis — the No. 29-ranked recruit by FloSoftball — that transition may be happening a bit faster. She registered a 1.04 ERA in high school and was a three-year All-State honoree in Georgia. Hutchins has made it clear that both of the new additions will get the opportunity to prove themselves this season.
“(Dennis) is definitely better this semester than she was last semester,” Hutchins said. “I think (Dennis) is really capable of some great things, and I think she needs to see herself as great. She needs to have some determination everyday and every pitch — like all of them. They’re always a work in progress.”
Schaefer rounds out the Wolverines’ bullpen as the third returning pitcher, though she’ll be out with an injury for at least a month. Even when she returns, it’s unclear how much time she’ll spend in the circle.
Her freshman season, Schaefer posted a stellar ERA of 1.57 — although only pitched 62.1 innings — but she was largely absent from last season’s rotation, finishing with only 17.2 innings pitched and an ERA of 3.17.
In practice, the added depth on this year’s roster may not make a huge difference. Hutchins and the rest of her assistant coaches may choose to stick with last season’s rotation of Beaubien and Storako — the tried and true pairing that carried the team to a Big Ten Tournament win. But their goal is to use the entire staff. If even one of the other pitchers becomes a reliable option, it would be a game-changer for the Wolverines.
While Michigan is always a force in the Big Ten, it has struggled in recent years to compete with west-coast powerhouses in the postseason. The Wolverines haven’t made it out of Super Regionals since 2016 when they lost in the second round of the World Series. But a third pitcher in the rotation could be what takes Michigan to the next level.
Most top-ranked programs — including Florida and Florida State who the Wolverines will face at next weekend’s USF-Rawlings Invitational — have more than two consistent pitchers. But the last time Michigan was able to use three pitchers in relatively even amounts was 2014.
Pitching upwards of 10 innings a weekend, it’s easy for a pitcher to get worn out by the end of the season. But more than that, it’s about having someone to pick up the slack.
“The beauty of (having five pitchers) is if somebody isn’t on and somebody else isn’t on, hopefully the next person will be and we really use the staff,” Hutchins said. “We certainly need to have high level performance from each of them. That’s going to be the key.”
There’s no question the Wolverines’ pitching staff has the talent to make that happen. The issue will lie in how soon they find their rhythm.