Last season, the Michigan softball team was one game away from holding a perfect record at Alumni Field.
But in the 2016 conference-opening showdown, Northwestern pitchers walked 12 batters and both teams made numerous changes in the circle. Michigan gave up a five-run lead when the Wildcats went on a seven-run tear in the fifth inning. When the seventh frame came to a close, the then second-ranked Wolverines found themselves defeated, 13-12, at the hands of Big Ten bottom-dweller Northwestern.
Its sole home loss was anything but typical.
Fast forward a year, and No. 20 Michigan (3-0 Big Ten, 23-7-1 overall) has the opportunity to exact revenge. Hoping to extend their winning streak to 12 and maintain a perfect conference and home record, the Wolverines will host the Wildcats (1-2, 13-16) for a trio of games this weekend.
With one weekend of Big Ten play under Michigan’s belt, it currently sits in a five-way tie for the top conference slot. The Wolverines outscored their past nine opponents 61-6, have six starters currently batting over .300 and hold the second-best team earned-run average (1.79) in the conference.
Michigan has the edge heading into the series, as Northwestern ranks eighth in the Big Ten and has just two players that break the .300 mark at the plate.
Following last weekend’s Penn State series, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins discussed elements in the team’s game that had largely improved from the start of the season.
“We took advantage of a lot of free bases,” Hutchins said. “We got more patient at the plate. Once you get a couple runs and you get some people get some big RBIs, it frees everyone else up and they don’t feel the pressure.
“It’s good to see the group start to swing a little bit. Tera’s swinging a little bit, Vargas has been a spark for us, and Faith has been a spark for us for a while now.”
And Michigan’s improvement has indeed been noticeable. The Wolverines haven’t had an off-colored loss in over two weeks and have seen games in which eight separate players have contributed RBI. In the circle, senior right-hander Megan Betsa — who leads the nation in strikeouts (202) — has the star power necessary to hold off the Wildcats’ offense.
However, as last year’s series shows, Northwestern is a fierce competitor that won’t go down easily. And this season, the Wildcats are coming into the series fresh off a win against a ranked opponent — something the Wolverines haven’t accomplished since Mar. 2nd.
In its second slate against No. 22 Wisconsin last weekend, Northwestern robbed the Badgers of a series sweep with a 5-4 victory. With this, both Michigan and the Wildcats have two ranked wins to their name this season.
Northwestern is battle-tested too, seeing the toughest 2017 schedule of any Big Ten team. The Wildcats have gone head-to-head with 11 ranked competitors, while the Wolverines have battled nine.
One of Northwestern’s greatest strengths, allowing it to compete with ranked opponents, is its pitching staff. The Wildcats have two starting hurlers with sub-3.00 ERAs and rank fifth overall for pitching in the Big Ten with a 3.14 team ERA.
While Michigan saw its offense blossom against Penn State, the Nittany Lions held a high team ERA of 4.65. Hits will undoubtedly be harder to come by against Northwestern’s more seasoned staff.
This knowledge, in combination with the results of Tuesday’s Central Michigan game where just three Wolverines saw hits, made batting become the number one order of business in Michigan’s practices this week.
“We focused more on getting quality swings, as opposed to focusing on the number of swings we take,” said sophomore catcher Katie Alexander.
If the Wolverines can internalize this week’s practice at the plate and maintain their dominance in all other areas, both a series sweep and the satisfaction of avenging the Wildcats are not out of sight this weekend.