Over the past three weeks, the No. 20 Michigan softball team (6-0 Big Ten, 26-7-1 overall) has mounted an impressive 12-game win streak — 11 of which have come at home. With the majority of the season’s home schedule complete, the Daily looks at four main takeaways from the Wolverines’ recent success, as the pieces are slowly coming together to make them a formidable threat against Big Ten competition.
Pitching dominance continues
Michigan’s rotation of right-handers Megan Betsa and Tera Blanco has ironed out early-season kinks to display pure dominance, pitching seven straight shutouts, including three last weekend against Northwestern. Together, the hurlers have offset the Wolverines’ difficulty in generating runs.
Betsa continues to prove she is one of the best pitchers in collegiate softball, leading the country with 221 strikeouts alongside 48 consecutive scoreless innings. Displaying a newfound confidence after self-doubt and uncertainty with mechanics in years past, she has limited opponents to an anemic .139 batting average while posting a stellar 1.23 earned-run average. The senior’s three complete-game shutouts this past week — adding to her own seven straight shutouts — earned her the third consecutive Big Ten Pitcher of the Week award.
Blanco has shown similar effectiveness on the mound. Recruited as a pitcher but converted to first baseman her freshman and sophomore years, the junior has stepped into the second spot in the rotation. Boasting a 13-2 record and 1.87 ERA, she has looked more poised than ever during the recent homestand. Blanco has gone the distance in 11 of 15 games, allowing Betsa to fully rest on scheduled days off.
“She has to carry the other half of the load because Megan is not going to be effective if we pitch her all the innings of the season,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “Tera has done her part and embraced pitching. She wants to win and wants to be good. She’s improved in every category and most importantly in attitude.”
Tasked with mentoring Blanco at the season’s outset and developing her pitching arsenal, Betsa and Blanco continue to learn from one other, the mentorship now a “two-way street.”
“We’re just working really well together,” Betsa said. “And Tera’s come a long way. She’s worked really hard, and her confidence has risen along with mine. That’s something you have to have to dominate in the circle, and so that’s something we both try to get better at every single day, and we work well together.”
Canfield, Vargas add offensive spark
Sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield and junior designated player Amanda Vargas have risen to the occasion in big ways to help a struggling offense.
Canfield has consistently hit the cover off the ball, batting .356 with 37 hits, 34 runs and 65 total bases. Not usually known for her power, the sophomore presents a matured approach at the plate, making hard and solid contact almost every at-bat.
“Faith has been just working hard and improving,” Hutchins said after a 17-0 rout over Penn State on Mar. 26. “I think she plays with a great energy, which I think helps you play better. … She has great rhythm and is swinging well. So, she is making it look kind of easy. I’d like to think that that inspires the group — that ‘You can do it, if I can do it.’”
Despite starting just 15 games, Vargas continues to make the most of her opportunities, sporting the team’s third-highest batting average of .364 and a .591 slugging percentage. When senior center fielder Kelly Christner dropped to seventh in the order, Vargas assumed the third slot and has held onto it ever since.
Though not playing in the field, Vargas believes her role as designated player has its perks.
“It gives you a little bit more time to think about your at-bat, and what I did wrong or what I did right, and really focus on just hitting,” Vargas said. “… I’m always going to be ready whenever Coach needs me or whenever the team needs me and I’m open for any position … I’m always excited to help the team in whatever we need.”
Senior impact improving
After a first month in which she earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors, Christner’s dominance at the plate tapered off. Though her average still hovered around .450, the senior experienced a major setback during a 10-game stretch, batting just .208 with two runs batted in and no extra-base hits. As Christner headlines the seniors’ offensive muscle, her lack of production was noticeable, which led to a move to the lineup’s seven hole.
But after this weekend against Northwestern, Christner’s production may be back, this time coupled with the success of senior shortstop Abby Ramirez at the plate. Thanks partly to a new batting stance, Christner has hit .636 in the last four games with six RBI and two extra-base hits, including a game-winning home run last Tuesday against Central Michigan. On top of that, she notched a 2-for-2, four RBI performance on Friday against Northwestern. Ramirez returned to her consistent self too, going 4-for-7 with four RBI and three runs over the weekend.
Hutchins believes upperclassmen turning the corner is vital to the Wolverines’ late-season fate.
“To have the kind of success that they are aspiring to, you really need the seniors,” Hutchins said. “I count on Kelly Christner, I count on Abby, I count on (senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano) and I count on Betsa. We count on them. If they don’t have good weekends or good seasons, we’re not going to have one, that’s just a fact. Your best players have to contribute regularly … or you’ll be average or less.”
Permanent lineup starts to take shape
After continuously tweaking the batting order through the first half of the season, it remained fairly consistent against Central Michigan and Northwestern, inferring Hutchins has found the best recipe to maximize offensive output.
With Vargas playing extremely well as of late, Hutchins has started her at designated player. But with junior Aidan Falk and her .315 batting average waiting in the wings, Hutchins holds the happy dilemma of who to start at designated player and first base — a position that both Falk and Blanco play — when Betsa is pitching.
After moving around offensive and defensive personnel, Hutchins toyed with her outfield, starting Falk in right and shifting sophomore outfielder Natalie Peters to left. This way, Falk can produce at the plate while Vargas and Blanco remain in the order.
“I want Vargas in the lineup and I want Aidan in the lineup and I want Tera in the lineup, but I only have one first base position,” Hutchins said. “So this way, I can start Aidan in right, let her have an at-bat or two, then put in the true outfielder. We’re just trying to keep our best offense moving, which is hard to tell some days who’s our best offense.”