As the Michigan softball team prepares for its first game in the Big Ten Tournament Friday, two of the Daily’s softball beat writers exchanged their reasons why the Wolverines will, or won’t, bring home the tenth conference tournament championship in program history.
Eighty-eight runs in the past nine games. The top strikeout pitcher in the nation. A team batting clip of .333. Six players named to All-Big Ten teams. A 17-0 home record.
The list could go on and on.
It is undeniable that the Michigan softball team is peaking heading into the Big Ten Tournament — and has the numbers to show for it as well.
But determining who will walk away with the tournament crown isn’t a question of whether the Wolverines are good— they have affirmed time and time again that they are. The question that should be considered is are they good enough.
As a championship match of No. 1-seeded Minnesota and No. 2 Michigan is a reasonable possibility — assuming both teams play their best games — will the Wolverines’ best be enough to overpower the Golden Gophers?
Last year, as the top dogs in the conference, the two teams found themselves vying for the trophy. Then-No. 23 Minnesota was the clear underdog. After a nail-biting 10-inning marathon, the Gophers made a name for themselves, conquering No. 2 Michigan to win the tournament.
But this year, the Wolverines won’t have to worry about the same Minnesota team.
This team is better.
There is of course the obvious — the Gophers finished as No. 1 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1991, robbing Michigan of a potential 10-straight year win streak. Not to mention, Minnesota cleaned up the postseason honors, taking Big Ten Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Pitcher of the Year and Coach of the Year.
But Minnesota has even more going for it.
With a pristine 22-1 conference mark and a current 22-game win streak, Minnesota has been steamrolling its competition. The Gophers have neutralized their opponents’ offensive production for the past 18 games, holding them to a miniscule average of 0.83 runs per game.
Minnesota finished its regular season touting a 51-3 overall record. Two of Minnesota’s three losses were to No. 8 Washington, and two were by a margin of only one run.
Michigan has found a potent offense in its past three weeks. But Minnesota has been in attack-mode at the plate all season.
Michigan has the second best team ERA (1.53) and batting clip (.333) in the Big Ten. But Minnesota is the sole team outshining the Wolverines in both categories.
Michigan has been performing exceptionally well. But it seems that everything the Wolverines can do, Minnesota has the capability to do and then some.
However, there is one exception to this. Senior right-hander Megan Betsa — the top strikeout pitcher in the nation — boasts 370 strikeouts, over 100 more than Minnesota star right-hander Sara Groenewegen.
Groenewegen — this year’s recipient of Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honors — touts a 0.60 ERA and ranks third in the nation in that category and in wins. The ace has 12 career no-hitters to her name. Betsa also has been given the nod as Pitcher of the Year, back-to-back in 2015 and 2016.
Both pitchers are crucial assets to their teams. But while Betsa has been responsible for saving her team on multiple counts, Groenewegen always has had a reliable offense to back her up.
At the end of the day, it’s impossible to know exactly how a Wolverine and Gopher showdown would go, if it happens at all. There is no true indicator this season, as the two teams haven’t faced each other yet this spring. In reality, the winner can’t be predicted and anything could happen. Last year was glaring proof of that.
But there are some things that we do know. With pristine current stats, it’s easy to forget that Michigan somewhat struggled against ranked competition prior to conference play.
Minnesota is not just any ranked opponent.
Minnesota is No. 2 in the nation.
Minnesota has essentially been untouchable all season. And if the Gophers bring their A-game this weekend, they will continue this trend. And not just for lower seeded teams, but for the likes of Michigan — a prime competitor with the home-field advantage — too.
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The pressure is mostly off the Michigan softball team.
For the first time in nine years, the seventeenth-ranked Wolverines will not enter the Big Ten Tournament with a number-one seed next to their name.
Instead, No. 2 Minnesota is the favorite, carrying a 21-game win streak into Ann Arbor with both the conference’s player and pitcher of the year on its side.
But that’s what the Wolverines needed.
The pressure of lofty preseason expectations frequently bit Michigan this season. Thanks to the tension that came with playing quality competition, the Wolverines went a lackluster 2-6-1 against ranked opponents.
“I think when the kids feel the pressure, they try too hard,” Hutchins said in early March. “That’s exactly what is going on with them.”
With poor offensive production, Hutchins constantly shuffled the lineup to find players who could overcome that pressure. She even batted senior outfielder Kelly Christner, an All-Big Ten First-Team selection, seventh after a brief slump.
Deep into the Big Ten schedule, however, her efforts to bring back the offensive juggernaut of yesteryear were mostly fruitless.
In a mid-April trip to Maryland — the conference’s bottom feeder — the tension that came with being heavy favorites got to Michigan yet again. Following a shocking loss the day before, it needed a seventh-inning comeback to salvage a series win.
The Wolverines simply looked destined to fall quite short of their usual standards.
But on April 22 at Wisconsin, Hutchins got her team’s attention.
She benched five starters against the Badgers, sending a powerful message to players like senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano — someone who has started almost her entire collegiate career.
With low expectations of a victory that day, Michigan shocked Wisconsin, 10-2.
The following afternoon, Hutchins finally cracked the code to the lineup that she’d been looking for all season — one that has scored 88 runs in nine consecutive victories to finish the regular season.
Montemarano has been a key element in the shift, batting .466 with two home runs in her last ten games. The same is true for Christner, who has recently combined her speed and power to immediately create offense in the lead-off spot.
Junior utility player Aiden Falk has returned to her power-hitting ways batting clean-up, while freshman Madison Uden — who got her first start against the Badgers — has added a spark both from left field and the designated player’s spot.
“It kind of lit a fire under all of us,” Christner said. “(We’ve) started playing with a little more passion and aggression.”
The benching was what the Wolverines needed.
“I like how we’ve been playing since that first Wisconsin game,” Hutchins said. “I feel like they’re playing with better passion, with better energy, and enthusiasm.”
Then there are the players who have been productive all season.
Sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield and junior first baseman Tera Blanco both earned Big Ten First-Team selections with batting averages over .400 in conference play.
In the circle, senior right-hander Megan Betsa has been one of the country’s most consistent and dominant players all year. She is leading the nation with 370 strikeouts, carries an astounding 1.18 ERA, and has thrown two no-hitters this season.
Blanco has also been impressive as a part of the rotation, filling in nicely behind Betsa with an ERA of 1.97 over 21 starts — diminishing preseason concerns over pitching depth.
It’s all coming together at the right time for Michigan. Its bats and pitching rotation are stronger than they’ve been all season.
And, of course, not being the favorites could relax the Wolverines.
That, too, is what Michigan needs.
“We’re the underdog,” Hutchins said. “I like it that way.”
Calcagno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkCal224.