The Michigan softball team left the John Cropp Classic in Lexington, Ky. teetering on the brink of disaster.
Following a swift 5-1 defeat to No. 19 Kentucky on March 12, its record dropped to 14-7-1 — the worst 22-game start since 2006.
“We’re not playing the game of softball,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins after that game. “Just play the game of softball, not who do you play, not who’s ranked, not who’s supposed to win. You’re just supposed to play the game, and we are very inconsistent in that category.”
Its 2-6-1 record against ranked opponents — averaging just two runs per game in those nine matchups — raised serious concerns about an unproven lineup, and whether it would ever find its form against the type of quality it would face.
The Wolverines were reeling, in search of answers to major questions on both sides of the ball.
Since then, Michigan has won 12 in a row, and done so in a fashion that hints at some semblance of sustainability.
Since allowing five runs to Kentucky, senior right-hander Megan Betsa has not allowed a run and thrown two no-hitters. With a changed approach aimed at attacking hitters, Betsa has blossomed into the dominant ace who had been missing at the beginning of the year. In the 48-inning span, she walked just 11 batters after walking 31 in her first 77.1 innings this season.
In turn, Betsa became the senior leader — in performance and demeanor — that Hutchins believes has been coming for awhile now.
“I really think her mental game is consistent. It’s been really consistent during this period,” Hutchins said. “She’s just trusting what she’s doing is good enough. She really sets a great example and she sets a good tone for us, and this is sometimes when we’re not offensive.
“She’s really been the best I’ve seen her in her career.”
The Wolverines’ lineup has seemingly turned a corner, as well. Since the Kentucky game, Michigan has averaged 6.75 runs per game, with contributions coming from a plethora of sources.
Junior infielder Amanda Vargas has thrived in her newfound role in the three spot in the order. Second baseman Faith Canfield has continued her breakout sophomore campaign, boasting a .356 average, and tied for the team lead with five home runs. And the two slap hitters — senior shortstop Abby Ramirez and sophomore outfielder Natalie Peters — have combined for 70 hits on the season, adding necessary depth to a lineup that had become all-too reliant on senior centerfielder Kelly Christner.
With the rotation becoming a dominant force and the lineup starting to solidify, the 12-game win streak seems a tell-tale sign of a team that has found its groove.
But this weekend we find out if that change is real.
The six opponents the Wolverines have faced since that tournament in Kentucky have an average RPI of 127, and five of the six sport records below .500.
They did what they were supposed to do at Alumni Field — beat up on inferior teams during its long homestand.
This weekend in Columbus, Michigan runs into an offensive buzzsaw, an unfamiliar contender that is quietly putting the Big Ten on notice. Coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010, No. 25 Ohio State is emerging as a serious contender in the uncharacteristically competitive Big Ten.
The Buckeyes come into the series surging — their only loss in their last 16 games coming at the hands of No. 5 Auburn. Their offense has posted 84 runs in its last seven games, with their top-three home run hitters — Lilli Piper, Alex Bayne and Emily Clark — totaling more home runs (25) than the entire Michigan team (24).
And they will be motivated. In a matchup that signifies a rivalry in many other sports, Ohio State has dropped 18-straight matchups to the Wolverines, dating back to 2010.
It’s time to find out whether Betsa can mow through a top-caliber lineup the way she did the Big Ten bottom-dwellers.
It’s time to find out whether junior right-hander Tera Blanco’s “pitch-to-contact” style will hold against a team with 37 home runs on the season.
And, most importantly, it’s time to see whether Michigan’s offense — which has shown a pulse against the likes of Eastern Michigan, Penn State and Northwestern — can replicate its production when faced with adversity on the road, against an array of quality pitching.
Without No. 7 Minnesota on the schedule until, presumably, the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines will use road visits to Ohio State and Wisconsin as their major measuring sticks.
On Friday, the Wolverines will head to Columbus to find out who they are.
On Sunday, they will come home a different team, for better or worse.
Marcovitch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MMarcovitch10.