Sluggish hitting. A lack of contributions from veteran leaders. Senior right-hander Alex Storako failing to keep the ball in the ballpark.
All of these issues have plagued the No. 22 Michigan softball team at various points this season. Whether these problems have been around since game one of the season or just cropped up recently, all of them have cost the Wolverines multiple games.
In Sunday’s bout with Penn State, these three issues forged the perfect storm for the Nittany Lions’ upset win, 3-2. Even after a week when they seemed to start to fade away, Michigan showed that those struggles are far from over.
“This is a game that we were lethargic from the first pitch offensively and we never recovered,” Michigan associate head coach Bonnie Tholl said. “Credit Penn State’s pitching for not giving us anything to really tee off on, but we could have been much better and more aggressive at the plate.”
The Wolverines managed only four hits on the game, a sharp decline from the first two games of the series in which they combined for 15 hits. Most of those hits were on weak contact, save one home run from freshman utility player Annabelle Widra. And outside of those four hits, very few balls were hit hard in the slightest.
Meanwhile, only one of those hits came from a player that was even on the team last season, junior outfielder Audrey LeClair. Of the players that coaches consistently describe as a veteran leader, only fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump even reached base.
In a game where Michigan needed its experienced leadership to pull it out of the trenches, it vanished.
“This weekend, the juniors and seniors provided a lot of our offense in the first two games,” Tholl said. “But today, they disappeared.”
Even Storako, who struck out 17 batters, couldn’t escape her greatest concern.
After two complete-game efforts where she allowed a total of one run, Storako reverted to the struggles she faced in the Wolverines’ first two Big Ten series. She allowed two home runs to the Nittany Lions, one two-run home run and a solo shot in the seventh inning that gave Penn State its final lead.
“You can’t fault her,” Tholl said. “She had 17 strikeouts. … Unfortunately, they just ran into a couple pitches.”
Yet those pitches have haunted her.
In her last 10 outings, Storako has given up 13 home runs — four more than all of last season in 20 fewer innings. She constantly dominates deep into games, but is liable to one bad pitch that blows Michigan’s lead. When the bats struggle like they did versus the Nittany Lions, that one mistake costs the Wolverines the game — whether or not the blame can rightfully be placed on her.
Now, because of the myriad of issues, Michigan finds itself at 4-5 in conference play. The uphill climb in the conference standings appears insurmountable, sitting four games behind Nebraska and three games behind No. 9 Northwestern — both teams that the Wolverines already lost a series to. With a home loss to perennial bottom-feeder Penn State, Michigan is digging itself an even deeper hole.
Even if the team resolved these issues tomorrow, the damage is already done. While the season is far from over, the Wolverines’ conference title hopes very well might be.
And they owe it to the same recurring, crippling, inescapable struggles that they just can’t seem to shake off.