“I’m just searching.”
Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins uttered these words following the Judi Garman Classic — a weekend in which her team underperformed at the plate. Hits were scarce and the Wolverines stranded 40 base runners throughout the weekend. Hutchins felt frustrated with her starting lineup.
Fast forward to Friday and Michigan found itself in a circumstance that has been all too familiar this season. Though the Wolverines outhit Wisconsin, 6-2, they stranded 13 runners and were unable to find a way onto the scoreboard. And with a walk-off solo shot in the 11th inning, the Badgers defeated Michigan in heartbreaking fashion, 1-0, in the first game of the series.
Two months had gone by since the Judi Garman Classic, but the same problems were plaguing the Wolverines. And Hutchins was still searching for an offense that was going to produce.
Hoping to get out of the rut at the plate Saturday, Michigan looked to its bench.
“It wasn’t really just because of Friday night,” Hutchins said. “I think it’s been an ongoing issue all season. The bench is the best teacher.”
And this change-up proved to be the key to igniting the offense.
In a monumental turn-around, No. 19 Michigan (14-3 Big Ten, 34-10-1 overall) routed Wisconsin (7-10, 28-12) in consecutive run-rule victories Saturday and Sunday, seizing the series from its conference foe.
Pounding out 10 runs on 10 hits, the Wolverines’ bats came to life Saturday, diverging from a small ball approach that had been prominent for weeks. Seven different players recorded hits on the day, and Michigan stranded just three runners, 10 less than on Friday.
Despite an initial one-run deficit heading into the third inning, the Wolverines maintained composure at the plate. Michigan notched back-to-back runs batted in from freshman designated player Madison Uden and sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield, gaining a lead it would never relinquish.
Uden and Canfield were both 2-for-3 on the day, tallying three RBIs apiece. The game marked Uden’s first collegiate start, and she would get the nod again in Sunday’s series finale.
In the top of the fourth, the Wolverines tacked on five more runs, widening their lead to 7-1. The Badgers responded with a sole run in the bottom of the inning, but it would be the last they would see all weekend.
Senior centerfielder Kelly Christner, who did not start for the first time all season Saturday, rose to the occasion when she was put in later in the game. Christner blasted a three-run bomb in the fifth, giving Michigan all the insurance it needed to secure a run-rule, 10-2, defeat of Wisconsin.
“I think the kids in the lineup were excited about their opportunity,” Hutchins said. “They worked hard to implement the game plan, and we did a much better job. Once we got things going, we were contagious.”
In the circle, freshman right-hander Leah Crockett got the nod Saturday — her first collegiate start and fourth appearance of the season. Crockett allowed just one hit, and was relieved by junior right-hander Tera Blanco in the second inning. The pair kept the Badgers to two runs on the day.
Part of what made the difference Saturday was a change in offensive approach in addition to the change in the lineup.
“We barely hit the ball out of the infield on Friday,” sophomore catcher Katie Alexander said. “So we really worked on (loading bigger) Saturday, because clearly all of us are really strong girls and we really need to start putting it out there.”
And Sunday, using this same tactic, the Wolverine offense erupted once again. Michigan scored eight runs on nine hits, shutting out Wisconsin, 8-0.
The Wolverines came out of the gates in attack mode. Blanco belt a three-run homerun in the first inning of play — her fourth shot of the season.
Alexander posted two RBIs, a double and a triple on the day. In the fifth inning, she widened the gap to 8-0 with a two-run double, pushing the game into run-rule territory.
Senior right-hander Megan Betsa earned the complete-game win in the circle, posting 10 strikeouts on the day. The game marked Betsa’s sixth-straight outing in which she tossed double-digit strikeouts. While much was not working for Michigan Friday night, Betsa was an exception. The ace recorded a career-high 18 strikeouts over 11 innings of work.
While Betsa was the reason the Wolverines stayed alive for so long Friday, Hutchins does not want her team to become comfortable relying on their ace to win every game.
“We put all the pressure in the world on Megan (Friday), and she did everything she could,” Hutchins said. “We needed to give her support and have better at-bats, it’s been something that we come back to too often.
“The people who are in our lineup are starting for a reason. And they all have a part to do, every game. And we don’t expect them to be perfect, but we expect what we need from them to win … and as a coach, I happen to think that we can do better than we’ve done. And we did better (Saturday), and we did better (Sunday), and I want better.”
Michigan knew going in that this weekend was going to be tough. Yet with a significant transformation Saturday, the Wolverines were able to rise to the occasion. It won’t be until the Big Ten Tournament that Michigan faces another team of Wisconsin’s caliber. But the Wolverines can leave this weekend knowing that when they do face their biggest competition, they have the necessary offensive arsenal from both their starters and bench to win.