Two weeks ago at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Michigan softball team’s 10 home runs made it seem as if the opening weekend’s poor run production against No. 2 Florida and No. 25 UCF was just a fluke, an inevitable early-season hiccup in a cold-weather school’s path to another strong season. But the team has averaged just 1.8 runs per game in eight contests — three of which were shutouts — against ranked opponents this season.
It would be easy to blame the offensive ineptitude on the graduation of two of the most proficient hitters in program history. Sierra Romero, the 2016 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, and Sierra Lawrence, who batted .429 with 11 home runs and 45 RBI last season, are both gone from the core of a lineup that averaged over seven runs per game.
“(Romero) is a huge loss, but I got over it in September,” Hutchins said. “She’s gone; she was great. That’s team 39 — my only focus is on Team 40. I’m not going to talk about Sierra Romero and say what a great career she had. My team is not focused on her, she’s irrelevant.”
While Romero might be gone in Hutchins’ mind, her returning players have yet to pick up the slack; the underproduction of returning players is also a culprit of the offensive struggles endured by the Wolverines thus far.
Getting shutout by No. 22 Baylor in the Judi Garman Classic last weekend demonstrated how far the team is from that slugging bombardment, as Michigan struck out six times and collected just two hits against the Bears. A combined two runs against No. 7 UCLA and No. 20 Arizona State the next day offered another microcosm of the offensive struggles Michigan has endured.
Junior first baseman and pitcher Tera Blanco’s average has dropped 180 points, while senior infielder Lindsay Montemarano is hitting under .250 — a steep drop from the adequate .323 of last season. In 2016, not a single Wolverine starter batted under the .310 mark. This year, three Wolverines have averages under .275. There is still plenty of time to turn the season around, but if the current trend is any indication, the production will not match that of last season.
Senior outfielder Kelly Christner, hitting .500 with four home runs and 20 RBI, bucks the trend. She launched three home runs in a single visit to North Carolina State in that ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
But despite that monstrous weekend in Raleigh, the team’s power is also lacking; Michigan averages just .84 home runs per game in comparison to the 2016 mean of nearly 1.5 blasts per contest.
As the Wolverines needed to find a second option behind senior right-hander Megan Betsa, Blanco has emerged in the circle with nine starts and a 2.61 earned-run average. While conventional thought points to a drop-off in offensive production that comes with added pitching responsibility, Hutchins didn’t believe Blanco’s bat would be affected.
“I don’t think (pitching and the loss of offensive production) has to go hand-in-hand,” Hutchins said. “She spent most of the preseason pitching, but she was first-team All-American because of her bat.”
But Blanco’s .224 batting average says otherwise. Instead of being the consistent presence she was last season, Blanco has struggled to be the run-producing force expected from her role in the middle of the Michigan order.
To have the success the Wolverines hoped to have, Blanco and returning players must prove that Romero’s absence is irrelevant to them, too.
That’s the only way Michigan will prove that the outburst of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge wasn’t just a fluke.