Katie Alexander and Haley Hoogenraad are no strangers to going the extra mile.
With their struggles mounting during the No. 21 Michigan softball team’s first month of Big Ten competition, the senior catcher and junior right fielder have spent even more time in the batting cage before practice.
Going into the weekend series against Ohio State, the two returning starters were able to use the Wolverines’ overall success at the plate to mask their own shortcomings.
Michigan swept Nebraska, Rutgers and Indiana en route to a 9-0 record to begin Big Ten play. During this start, the Wolverines posted a batting average of .315 and plated more than seven runs per game. But Hoogenraad and Alexander — the seventh and eighth batters in Michigan coach Carol Hutchins’ lineup — didn’t partake in the hit parade. The duo posted an average of just .220, while the first four hitters in the lineup combined for a .396 clip.
But in Columbus, Hoogenraad and Alexander flipped the switch.
With the scoreboard knotted up at one run apiece in the fourth inning of Friday’s series-opener, Hoogenraad stepped up to the plate while Alexander took warm-up cuts in the on-deck circle. Junior outfielder Thais Gonzalez, who entered the game as a pinch runner, represented the go-ahead run at first base.
Four pitches into the at-bat, Hoogenraad put a swing on the fifth. She drove the ball down the right field line, and it tailed away from the diving Buckeye outfielder just enough to ricochet off her glove. As Hoogenraad pulled into third base with a triple, she took a moment to reflect on her first extra-base hit of the month.
“The best feeling is when you get to third base and look back into the dugout and everyone in the dugout is really excited,” Hoogenraad said. “That is the best feeling, knowing you did it for everyone else.”
When Alexander made her way to the plate, she didn’t give the dugout much time to rest before the crack of her bat sent another wave of jubilation its way. Just two pitches after Hoogenraad’s triple, Alexander launched a no-doubt home run to deep right-center field. This time, the entire Michigan dugout emptied as it celebrated the end of its captain’s coldspell.
Alexander’s next at-bat provided an equally exciting sequel. After working the count full, she fouled off a pair of payoff pitches before getting ahold of the third. When Alexander made contact on the sweet spot, she began her home run trot for the second time in as many plate appearances. The long ball gave the Wolverines a 6-3 advantage in the sixth frame.
An inning later, Hoogenraad made her way to the batter’s box with the bases loaded and two outs. She seized her chance to break the game open, belting a grand slam over the left-center field wall to give Michigan a 10-3 lead.
“We really needed the (number) six through nine hitters to pick up their production, and they did an outstanding job,” Hutchins said. “… (Hoogenraad and Alexander) connected on pitches. That’s what we’re striving for, and it doesn’t happen every time.”
In the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, the tandem led yet another comeback win.
After seeing Ohio State take freshman right-hander Alex Storako deep twice in the first inning, Hoogenraad and Alexander helped the Wolverines claw back in the second frame. Hoogenraad’s opposite-field RBI single cut the Buckeyes’ lead in half, and she made her way into scoring position with a stolen base just moments later.
In the ensuing at-bat, Alexander laced an RBI single through the left side to tie the game. When Hoogenraad scored on a sacrifice bunt later in the inning, Michigan took the lead for good. Alexander’s crucial hit clinched the series win and brought her batting average to .214 — its highest mark since Feb. 22.
“No matter how (Alexander’s) season is going, she’s always in there working hard and going the extra mile to try to make herself better,” Hoogenraad said. “That just goes to show perseverance, even when things aren’t going your way, you’re always in there putting in more work and doing extra to try to make yourself better and that really is a true showing of perseverance.”
When the dust settled, Hoogenraad and Alexander tallied eight hits across 16 at-bats, 10 RBI and five runs scored in the series.
If Hoogenraad and Alexander can permanently break their slumps, that extra mile in the batting cage could add coveted length to the lineup — a key ingredient in the Wolverines’ pursuit of their 11th Big Ten championship in 12 years.