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With two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the fifth inning, graduate utility player Melina Livingston stepped up to the plate.

Livingston took a cut at the first pitch she saw, whiffing and falling behind in the count. But she paid that no mind. 

Livingston pushed the next pitch off the end of her bat for a low line drive into opposite field. The ball squeaked over the right-field fence, and she trotted around the bases en route to a mob of her teammates at home.

Livingston’s two-run home run — her first in a Michigan softball uniform — capped off a stellar outing in the 22nd-ranked Wolverines’ victory over Michigan State on Wednesday. Livingston went 2-for-2 on the day with three RBIs, culminating in the latest of a stretch of performances that has elevated her from a bench player to a budding star.

“I’m not thinking about mechanics at all,” Livingston said. “I’m just going up there, just ‘see the ball, hit the ball.’ I’m trying to keep it super simple and it’s working out so far.”

And Livingston’s recent play has soared miles beyond preseason expectations.

Prior to the season, Livingston was the unheralded member of Michigan’s pair of graduate transfers. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins immediately described graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt as fitting into the team and expected to contribute right away as an everyday player. Meanwhile, Hutchins spoke of Livingston as a role player who would provide depth and versatility, and not much else.

It showed in Livingston’s early-season opportunities. Hutchins tapped Livingston in minor substitution roles, mainly electing to slot her in to pinch hit or run. And though she performed relatively well in those spots, it didn’t turn into much more than a few starts against weaker competition.

Now, though, early-season expectations of Livingston have been flipped on their head entirely.

Livingston has ascended to an everyday player, starting at second base consistently. With star senior outfielder Lexie Blair sidelined indefinitely due to injury, the cleanup spot in the Wolverines’ order is suddenly open. Since Hutchins slotted Livingston in there, she has made a major contribution.

“Coming in just in January, I had a lot of catching up to do,” Livingston said. “… Having that confidence from the coaches and even from my teammates behind me, that just, ‘you’re gonna be productive’ is super empowering.”

Using that increased confidence in her, Livingston has taken her expanded role and run with it. She boasts at least one hit in every game against Big Ten competition, and in the past eight games she’s appeared in, she’s notched 10 hits and eight RBIs. With her two hits against the Spartans, she elevated her batting average to .415 and her OPS to 1.022 — both good for second on the team.

“You give a lot of kudos to Melina Livingston,” Hutchins said. “She’s just really stepped up big time and has given us some great experience and some great at-bats. That’s definitely been a spark plug for us.”

With her first home run of the season, in her best single-game performance of the year, in the midst of an expanding hot streak, Livingston is solidifying her role in Michigan’s lineup. As long as Blair is out, there is a place for her in the heart of the order. If she continues to perform so effectively, a spot in the starting lineup will likely remain available to her far beyond Blair’s eventual return.

And with the Wolverines fighting their way out of an early hole in the conference standings, Livingston’s ascension could not have come at a better time.