In the bottom of the second inning, junior outfielder Lexie Blair strolled into the batter’s box with runners at first and second and two outs. During the Wolverines’ fourth game of the season, with the count at 1-1, she blasted a pitch from Iowa’s Denali Loecker high over the right-centerfield fence.
The home run, the No. 21 Michigan softball team’s first of the year, was representative of a statement Blair made through her performance over the weekend: She’s back.
After an All-Big Ten first team unanimous selection her freshman year — a season in which she batted .406 with 54 RBI and six home runs — Blair started slowly in last season’s sophomore campaign. Through the first 19 games, Blair held the lowest batting average on the team before flipping the script to salvage a .239 average on the abbreviated season.
With a condensed Big Ten-only schedule, the continuation of Blair’s late 2020 success is needed should the Wolverines’ lineup be able to find any footing. So far, she has delivered.
Over the first weekend of play, Blair posted a .350 batting average, led the team with five RBI and scored six times. Her production consistent, she found herself on the basepaths in all six games.
“Lexie Blair showed signs of being much more consistent out of the gate this year,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “We need (her) to have her consistent game.”
As Blair produced in the lead-off spot, though, much of the offense lagged behind. In an issue that has plagued Michigan over the last couple years, stellar pitching has been paired with sub-par hitting. This weekend, senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien and junior right-hander Alex Storako combined for 78 strikeouts while surrendering only three earned runs, yet the Wolverines played tight games throughout the weekend.
They particularly struggled with runners in scoring position, batting a lowly 1-for-19 in the final two games — both losses — to Illinois. While shockingly inefficient, that number fits the narrative of a squad in which a majority of batters failed to surpass a .225 batting average during the weekend.
“I’m quite disappointed we’re 4-2 with (Beaubien and Storako’s) ERA,” Hutchins said. “And that’s on our offense.”
Hutchins attributed many of her hitters’ struggles to their lack of competitive college at-bats, and emphasized the progress she expects as they get more opportunities to learn how to manage counts. For many of the young hitters, veteran batters like Blair are key mentors as they navigate plate appearances this season.
“Our upperclassmen are just great about keeping (us) locked in the moment,” freshman second baseman Sierra Kersten said. “Our hitting is contagious and our upperclassmen do a great job of getting it going.”
Although Blair was the most consistent hitter of the weekend, her production found compliments in the likes of senior infielder Lou Allan, along with sophomore third baseman Julia Jimenez. Allan batted .375 with four RBI, while Jimenez built on her strong freshman season with a .333 average and four RBI over the weekend.
All three of them bat at the top of the lineup. It’s the bottom half’s struggles that were key to leaving 42 runners on base. The Wolverines need production up and down the lineup to take advantage of their strong pitching, and consistency from Blair, Allan or Jimenez is simply not enough.
“She’s very important to our lineup, but Lexie Blair’s at-bats won’t solve the rest of the lineup,” Hutchins said. “What we need is the rest of the group to have good at-bats, which will definitely result in swinging at better pitches, being on time more often and hopefully having more well-hit balls.”
So far, Blair has answered questions following a sophomore slump. The verdict is still out for the offensive unit as a whole, though, as it seeks to mirror her success.
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