Across the first six innings of Saturday’s game against Iowa State, the Michigan softball team’s offense was largely invisible, mustering only one run on five hits. And yet the Wolverines were staring down the last of the seventh inning, attempting to mount a furious comeback.
The first three batters of the inning reached base. Down 5-1, the next hitter would both represent the tying run and signal the return to the top of the batting order.
Any cautious optimism that such a situation accrued, though, soon gave way to disappointment. Three consecutive baserunners were followed by three consecutive outs.
The fateful final inning against Iowa State was a microcosm of Michigan’s weekend failures at the dish. It painted an all too familiar scene of stranding baserunners on a weekend where the Wolverines hit at a lowly .214 (6-for-28) clip with runners in scoring position. In prime scoring opportunities, the bats were failing, making the lack of runs no surprise. Michigan was held to one run or less in three of its four games.
These struggles have little to do with ability. Across the season’s first ten games, the Wolverines hit .300 (30-for-100) in the same situations — a far more respectable figure. Rather, according to Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, it’s an issue rooted in mental inconsistencies.
“I think it had to do a lot with too much being in their head, whatever was in their head,” she said.
Added sophomore catcher Hannah Carson: “We may have been thinking about too many things.”
Admissions like these are not atypical of a scuffling softball team. Individual slumps have a tendency to spiral, snowballing into a greater problem. Players will often place added pressure on themselves to perform and send themselves into prolonged funks, estranged from their traditional approach at the plate.
“Hitting is contagious,” Hutchins said. “When nobody hits, when people swing at bad pitches, it’s amazing. They catch it like they catch the flu.”
The first step of breaking out of a slump is diagnosing its cause. The Wolverines are confident they’ve done that. Figuring out how to tackle it is a different beast, but they believe they’ve found a solution to that too.
“Just keeping the game simple,” Carson said. “Not worrying about who our competitor is and just focusing on one pitch at a time. Just using that will help to get the job done.”
One-pitch softball is a mantra that Michigan has embraced since the offseason. Its message stresses staying in the moment and places an emphasis on focusing on what the batter can control — the next pitch.
The batter can’t control the situation she encounters. With the focus of one-pitch softball, situations like batting with runners in scoring position are meant to be ignored.
It’s served as both a calling card and a crutch throughout the early portion of the season. Now, one-pitch softball is an approach the Wolverines are making a concerted effort to rediscover.
“I don’t think there’s one-pitch focus,” Hutchins said of the weekend. “Because what’s the difference between having runners on base and having no runners on base? The ball doesn’t know, the bat doesn’t know, well who knows? Well, the hitter knows.”
In practice this week, Hutchins had her players partake in what she calls a competitive hunting pitches drill. The players took turns batting and registered points when they hit the ball well; the ones who accumulated the most points would win. It’s a drill that embraces the basics — no situations, no outside noise. All the batter had to do was focus on hitting the ball.
During bats with runners in scoring position, the batter’s attention might stray away from the single pitch, other thoughts clouding their head. The drill helps the Wolverines blot out these thoughts, better preparing them to hit with runners in scoring position.
This simplicity to hitting is something Hutchins feels the team lost track of in stretches over the weekend. After a five-run outburst in the opening inning against Liberty on Sunday, for instance, Michigan seemed to have fixed its woes, only for nine straight Wolverines to be retired to close the game.
“All of a sudden, we have several innings in a row of poor at-bats, of out, out, out,” Hutchins said. “Getting ourselves out.”
A repeat of last weekend’s offensive doldrums is something Michigan can ill-afford, especially against the steeper competition that awaits in the Judi Garman Classic. It’ll soon be seen whether a re-emphasis on the basics of hitting pays any dividends.