The No. 2 Michigan softball team has had a long buildup to conference play.
The Wolverines (21-2) have traveled across the country to tournaments in Florida, California and Kentucky, facing a host of nationally diverse — and talented — opponents, including No. 1 Florida, No. 7 Washington, No. 11 Florida State, No. 13 Missouri, No. 14 Oklahoma and No. 16 UCLA.
But the team finally returned to Ann Arbor last Wednesday to play its first home game of the season, clobbering Eastern Michigan, 14-1.
Tuesday’s home game against Western Michigan represents the end of Michigan’s journey to Big Ten play.
After facing the Broncos (8-12), the Wolverines will begin a 23-game conference schedule, with the exception of one game against Central Michigan sandwiched between series against Maryland and Penn State at the end of April.
Michigan’s strong start has been boosted by an offense that ranks fourth in the nation in scoring and 10th in batting average.
Its pitching, however, lags behind in comparison, with the rotation giving up four or more runs in five games this season and ranking 38th in the nation in earned-run average.
For a team with championship potential that has been ranked No. 2 all year — and came in at No. 1 in the first RPI rankings of the season — the Wolverines haven’t been very balanced.
But that seems to be changing.
Over its last eight games, Michigan’s pitching staff has hurled five shutouts and has a combined team earned-run average of 0.94.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has stuck with the same trio of starting pitchers all year, and all three appear to be turning things around at the same time.
For junior right-hander Megan Betsa, walks have been a thorn in her side all season. Currently, she has given up more free passes than hits.
In her past two starts, she has tempered the problem, giving up just two walks and tossing what was easily her best game of the season in her most recent start. Betsa threw a complete game shutout with 11 strikeouts and no walks against Illinois State.
Betsa is building off of an All-American season last year, and Michigan will need her to continue to return to her previous excellence if it hopes to experience more postseason success.
Sophomore right-hander Tera Blanco has bounced back as well. In her first start of the season, Blanco gave up seven runs (five unearned) in an 8-0, run-rule loss to No. 1 Florida, but she has since thrown two shutouts in her past three starts.
Fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga has been the most consistent of all the pitchers, sporting a gaudy 11-0 record with a team-best 2.12 ERA. But even she struggled earlier in the season, giving up 13 runs in 20.1 innings pitched at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic.
Since then, however, she has given up only one run in the past 18 innings she has pitched.
With its staff rounding into shape, the Wolverines are an even more dangerous team than before. Even if pitching alone can’t win championships, consistently good pitching can only help a team with the caliber of offense that Michigan has.
“If we can get our pitching to consistently keep us in the game, our offense has the ability to do their part, which is score more runs,” Hutchins said. “That’s really what we try to stress every day with our pitchers to take the pressure off them. They don’t have to be perfect.”
Tuesday’s game against Western Michigan represents another opportunity for the Wolverine pitching staff to show they can support their bats.