With a 1-0 deficit in the final game of its series against Illinois on Sunday, the Michigan softball team was on the verge of going once through its batting order without a single hit.
In the bottom of the third inning, though, sophomore shortstop Ella McVey stepped into the batter’s box. Facing a 3-2 count, she slotted the ball through the middle, opening the door for the Wolverines’ offense.
Later in the inning, McVey’s hesitance on a tag out in an attempt to reach second base blocked the opposing fielder’s view, giving sophomore left fielder Ellie Sieler ample time to reach first base. That play set Sieler up to ultimately score on an RBI single, tying tie the game at one.
McVey’s hit, combined with her awareness at the plate, ignited Michigan’s offense — and it wasn’t the first time she found herself in that position last weekend. In the second game against the Fighting Illini on Saturday, she entered the batter’s box in the same situation — bottom of the third inning with the Wolverines having no hits — and just like Sunday, she gave them their first hit of the game.
“(McVey) is playing her best ball of the year,” Michigan coach Bonnie Tholl said Apr. 9. “I can tell that she feels confident. She’s making plays for us. She’s getting on base.”
McVey’s aggressive bat has found a crucial spot in the Wolverines’ offense, but that wasn’t always the case this season. Exactly a month prior to Sunday’s game, McVey returned to the starting lineup against Kent State. After seeing freshman infielder Avery Fantucci receive six starts in her place due to a lack of offensive production combined with a minor wrist injury, McVey got the opportunity to rebound and reinstate herself. Instead, McVey’s struggles continued as her batting average dropped even further from .172 to .161.
The tides, though, began to shift against Bowling Green on March 15. Using her aggressive slap-hitting even when she fell behind in the count, McVey found her rhythm as she recorded three hits and two runs, leading the way for Michigan’s offense in the 9-0 run rule win.
“I’ve been working on my process, slowing down myself,” McVey said Tuesday. “I’m not gonna go out and hit home runs or gap shots. My job is to put the ball in play, make something happen, (and) put some pressure on the defense.”
Now deep into Big Ten play, McVey has been doing exactly that job, and her performance has only elevated.
In the third game of its series against Ohio State on March 27, Michigan was paving its way to a late comeback. After decreasing its seven-run deficit to just four, McVey entered the game in the sixth inning. Facing a full count, she hit the ball through the gap in left field, using her speed as a slap-hitter to reach first base. With no outs, the rest of the offense followed suit to tally three runs in the inning and bring the game within reach.
“She’s having really tough at bats and her average doesn’t speak to that,” Tholl said Apr. 9. “But she’s had a lot of really well-placed balls and has made the pitcher work.”
As McVey capitalized on opportunities to pressure the opposing defense in the past few games, her hits have come as part of an already surging offensive momentum. Against Illinois last weekend, though, she created the spark at bat herself.
In the second game of the series — with the Wolverines looking to redeem themselves after Friday’s loss — McVey refused to let the bats fall silent, fouling off multiple balls before hitting a single. It didn’t directly lead to any scoring production, but it got the bats going, as the Wolverines recorded three runs and two hits to take the lead in the next inning.
And when Michigan experienced dèjá vu on Sunday, McVey once again provided the much needed hit.
“Hopefully (hitting) is contagious and that rubs off to other people,” Tholl said Tuesday. “She has shown that her on base percentage and her ability to get things going (has) been really helpful to our offense.”
Although McVey lacks power behind her swing, her ability to timely utilize her slap-hitting tactics and repeatedly play to her strengths each game has steadily improved her performance. She has regained her presence from the batter’s box, increasing her batting average to .262 with eight hits in the last 10 games.
Michigan’s offense has remained stagnant throughout the season and against the Illini, it became abundantly clear how essential each hit is. If the Wolverines want to find success as they continue conference play, they will need McVey to grow through her mistakes and maintain her offensive consistency.
And for McVey, that is not an unfamiliar situation, she has proven to accept that pressure and shine in it.