This weekend, the Michigan softball team is looking for its tenth Big Ten tournament title in program history. Michigan is hosting the Big Ten Tournament for the tenth time.
And if the seventeenth-ranked Wolverines (20-3 Big Ten, 41-10-1 overall) can secure their tenth straight win tomorrow against Michigan State (12-12, 30-21), they’ll be one step closer to raising the championship once again.
The in-state rivals will clash for the third time this season, but now with larger implications in the quarterfinal matchup of the conference tournament. With a narrow 8-7 win in today’s matchup over Indiana, the Spartans advanced to Friday’s game versus No. 2-seed Michigan, who was given a first-round bye.
Despite defeating Michigan State in both its previous two encounters, Michigan found itself in close contests both times — 5-1 and 3-1 victories in the home-and-home series. The Wolverines, in the midst of their offensive drought, were unable to put either game out of reach, forcing senior right-hander Megan Betsa to carry the team with minimal run support.
After her team’s 3-1 win on Apr. 18, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins was displeased with the offense’s execution against the Spartans’ pitchers.
“When you’re facing good pitching and they’re clearly throwing a strategy at us — off-speeding every other pitch … we gave (our players) a game plan and they didn’t execute it,” Hutchins said. “Four of the six hitters did not execute it. It’s unacceptable. We’re telling you what pitch to swing at, and we still didn’t do it. We didn’t swing at the pitch we told them to swing at. … Game plans take off the pressure. If I had you swing at the wrong pitch, it would be my fault.”
Fast forward four days — after an 11-inning, 1-0 loss at Wisconsin — and the Wolverines started their current nine-game win streak. After not capitalizing at the plate for most of the season, Michigan turned the corner and now enters the tournament averaging 9.8 runs per game with a .424 team batting average and 2.56 home runs per game.
“I think we came out and played hard to finish up strong in the Big Ten this weekend,” said sophomore catcher Katie Alexander, following a weekend sweep of Rutgers to end the regular season. “I think we’ve all been working on getting our swings really big and we just hit a lot of home runs this weekend, so we’re set to do well for the tournament.”
Though displaying a competent pitching staff, Michigan State must now rely on their two starting pitchers — left-hander Kristina Zalewski and right-hander Bridgette Rainey — who are coming off no days’ rest. The duo both have sub-4.00 ERAs on the season, but Thursday’s shootout against Indiana proved their inconsistency, something the resurging Wolverine offense will try to exploit to its advantage.
In contrast, Betsa will be in the circle for Michigan, having not pitched since Sunday at Rutgers. The ace — who is used to the wear-and-tear of pitching on little rest — has had five days off and is fully rested to pitch however much is necessary to advance to the semifinals Saturday. Betsa enters Friday with a newly-received unanimous All-Big Ten first team nod. The hurler has a 14-2 record, an 0.85 ERA and a conference-best 191 strikeouts in Big Ten play this season.
Betsa will face a Spartan offense consisting of seven players that have a batting average of .300 or higher. Third baseman Kaitlyn Eveland and outfielder Lea Foerster lead the team, posting .396 and .390 batting averages — both ranking in the top-ten for Big Ten players. While Eveland and Foerster have been Michigan State’s mainstays the entire season, outfielder Lexi White has recently started to heat up, hitting .390 in conference play. Eveland and White were major contributors in the Spartans’ victory over Indiana, accounting for a combined three of eight total runs and five RBI.
Notwithstanding its No. 7 seed compared to Michigan’s second, Michigan State will look to play spoiler against a hot Wolverine team.
But even with mounted pressure for success, Hutchins believes her squad is up for the challenge.
“We’re happy to have (the tournament) at home,” Hutchins said. “We’re very fortunate, but you still got to go out and play well and pitch well. I think if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will be good enough.”