Senior shortstop Abby Ramirez walked into the media room at Alumni Field after an underwhelming 3-1 win over Michigan State on Tuesday.
There was a hollow feeling: She was happy with the win, but she wasn’t.
When asked a question about senior right-hander Megan Betsa, Ramirez commended her pitcher, “especially when the offense isn’t getting it done.”
It’s a phrase that has become all too common in and around Alumni Field this season, with Betsa’s dominance in the circle often masking the team’s inherent offensive flaws.
Ramirez’s veiled discontent with the team’s continued offensive struggles shone transparently through as she answered questions. Betsa had bailed them out on the day — as she has done with a stunning regularity this season. But, as Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has harped all year, that’s not a sustainable way to win with any sort of consistency. There would come a time when not even Betsa’s right arm could bail them out any longer.
That time came Friday evening in Madison.
Betsa, who has thrown two no-hitters this season, pitched arguably her best game of the season. Had the game ended in the usual seven innings, Betsa would have added a third no-hitter to her résumé.
Instead, the game went to an eighth inning. Then a ninth. Then a 10th. The Wolverines loaded the bases in both the ninth and 10th innings, to no avail. Finally, Wisconsin infielder Stephanie Lombardo broke the scoreless affair in the 11th, taking Betsa deep to center field to grab the walk-off win, 1-0.
Ten innings. Two hits. 18 strikeouts. Not enough.
“I was very disappointed,” Hutchins said. “We put all the pressure in the world on Megan, and she did everything she could, and we needed to give support and have better at bats. It’s been something that seems to be something that we come back to too often.”
Coming into the game, the Wolverines had scored three runs or fewer in 11 different Betsa starts. To her credit, she had still won seven of them.
Something had to change, so everything did.
Saturday, Hutchins decided to shake up the Michigan lineup like a snowglobe. Freshman right-hander Leah Crockett made her first career start in the circle and freshman shortstop Madison Uden went from the bench to the second spot in the order. Seniors Kelly Christner and Lindsay Montemarano, along with juniors Tera Blanco and Aidan Falk, traded their normal places in the order for a spot on the bench.
It was a lineup shakeup aimed squarely at the feet of the underperforming upperclassmen, the presumed leaders. Hutchins essentially said as much.
“I would say that I wasn’t pleased with the people who had been in the lineup,” Hutchins said. “It wasn’t really just because of Friday night. I think it’s been an ongoing issue all season. The bench is the best teacher. That’s a John Wooden-ism and every now and then I come back to that.”
The move was an audacious — some would even say desperate — attempt to muster something, anything, out of an offense that has been at best inconsistent, and at worst lifeless for much of the season.
But here’s the most surprising part: It worked.
Led by a combined six RBIs from Uden and sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield, the Michigan offense awakened from its slumber to trounce the Badgers in what was its most convincing win of the season. Uden, specifically, made the most of her opportunity — knocking in three RBIs in her first career start.
Hutchins, who has preached the necessity of each player making the most of their opportunity, raved about Uden’s approach this weekend.
“I was really pleased,” Hutchins said. “Pleased and proud of her. She attacked the ball, she wasn’t caught up in the excitement of the moment.”
Sunday, with yet a new lineup iteration, the offense picked up where it left off, scoring eight runs in another five-inning victory to take the series. Blanco — who entered the game with the lowest batting average among the Wolverines’ regulars (.255) — came up with the biggest hit of the day, knocking a three-run home run in the top of the first to grab a commanding lead. On this day, they didn’t leave it up to Betsa, who cruised through five scoreless innings anyway, while extending her NCAA-leading strikeout total to 334.
It’s too soon to call this the turning point of the season — this offense cannot be afforded the benefit of the doubt until it maintains some semblance of consistency.
It’s not too soon, however, to say the shakeup rejuvenated what had previously been a one-man team on a first-class trip to nowhere.