It’s what Michigan coach Carol Hutchins credits for the No. 21 Michigan softball team’s stark pivot after a rough start to the season. It’s what has allowed the Wolverines to slowly claw their way back from falling out of the rankings for the first time in almost 20 years. It’s what has propelled Michigan to a 15-game win streak.
But, there’s still one major test left to pass: Whether the Wolverines’ offense has the staying power for a serious postseason run.
Michigan dug itself into a tough spot as the season began. By the third week, it was on an unprecedented five-game losing streak. While consistent pitching by sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien and strong defense kept the Wolverines in most games, Michigan struggled at the plate. In the 23 games before coming home, the Wolverines averaged less than four runs per game with a collective batting average of .210.
When asked what accounted for the lack of offensive production, Hutchins and the players have cited everything from a poor mentality to a lack of patience at the plate.
Whatever the cause, their offensive struggles didn’t follow them home. But the presence did. When the Wolverines returned to Alumni Field for their home opener on March 14, the bats started swinging.
Michigan has faced weaker competition in the past month, not facing a ranked opponent since March 7. Still, the Wolverines’ offense is inarguably stronger.
Their hot-streak started with an 8-0 run-rule against Kent State in the home opener and hasn’t stopped since. Michigan has racked up almost nine runs per game on average — more than double that of the beginning of the season — and is batting .370 in the 15 games since being home.
Offensive standouts have emerged in the Wolverines’ lineup. Senior outfielder Natalie Peters’s batting average has soared from a .250 average to its current .340, and junior third baseman Madison Uden’s on-base percentage has been steadily climbing since her batting average also took a dip early in the season. They’ve been present at the plate, and they’re just a few of many examples.
“(Power hitting) means we’re swinging with better confidence,” Hutchins said on March 17. “If there’s anything that’s improved, it’s our presence and our confidence. We’ve been a talented team all along, but now we’re playing with the confidence we need.”
Almost every player’s batting average has improved — even those who were hitting relatively well early on in the season. Freshman outfielder Lexie Blair and senior first baseman Alex Sobczak have become integral to Michigan’s offense, adding power to the lineup as the season has progressed with four and seven home runs respectively.
While home runs were few and far between early in the season, the Wolverines have hit at least one ball out of the park in each of the past 10 games, largely due to Blair and Sobczak.
But there are shortcomings.
Throughout the season, Michigan’s offense has often fallen into a pattern: score several runs in one or two innings and leave the others scoreless. This was true in the Wolverines’ matchup against No. 5 Washington on March 3 and remained true in all three of Michigan’s games the Hoosiers this weekend, to name a few.
The Wolverines have made it clear they’ve found the offensive power to carry them through the rest of Big Ten play — a conference in a historic downturn — but with the postseason less than a month away, that might not be enough.
The offense has left runs on the table in each contest so far. This weekend alone, Michigan left 19 runners stranded on base against Indiana. They struggled to bring home runners in scoring position, faltering on at-bats that could have solidified a stronger lead.
This problem isn’t new.
“We’ve been very inconsistent, and especially in our RBI production,” Hutchins said on March 9. “We need to get better. We need to have a productive set in those at-bats.”
Success in the postseason could hinge on response to adversity.
In the face of strong pitching in the seventh inning of the Sunday’s game against Indiana, the Wolverines stayed locked in at the plate with three consecutive producing at-bats that allowed Michigan to edge out the Hoosiers in a walk-off double.
“We’re playing for May — and I don’t mean the beginning of May,” Hutchins said. “We’re playing to get to the end of May. It’s going to be hard but the only chance we have is with a team like the seventh inning.”