A month ago, the No. 22 Michigan softball team’s biggest question was about its ability to hit. As the Wolverines push deeper into the season, they seem to be finding answers.
In Friday’s game against Maryland, the crack of a well-hit ball told both teams that sophomore utility player Lauren Esman’s deep shot was gone, claimed by the bleachers at right field as she rounded the bases on her first home run of the season.
In Sunday’s final game against the Terrapins, senior first baseman Lou Allan powered the ball out of Alumni Field on back-to-back plate appearances, even surprising herself with her performance.
That ability to hit — and more importantly score — is a far cry from Michigan’s performance in the Big Ten bubble at the start of the season. Batters that struggled to find consistency in early March hit powerful balls with ease against Maryland. That improvement might come from getting more at-bats as the season progresses, but that pattern isn’t exclusive to this season.
“It’s normal during the season for us to have an offense that has to continue to get better because it’s not the first year I’ve ever said this,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins told reporters on April 13. “I say it every year.”
In a normal season, the Wolverines start the year with a preseason campaign full of tournaments in Florida, California and other warmer locales. Early games against tough, ranked opponents usually give Michigan a challenge before facing a weaker Big Ten schedule.
But this isn’t a normal year. COVID-19 made a regular schedule impossible, and the Wolverines had to jump right into conference play. Even though they didn’t face early ranked opponents, they still started the season cold.
“Typically 20 games is almost the end of our preseason schedule before we hit Big Ten,” Hutchins said. “You know, there’s something to be said for getting in a rhythm which we had a hard time doing.”
The importance of that lost preseason becomes doubly important when considering the pandemic ended last season prematurely. Even for upperclassmen, it had been nearly a year since they’d played an NCAA softball game, so reacclimating to the batter’s box would take time.
However, the past few games suggest they’ve found their stride again. Senior infielder Natalia Rodriguez has gone 12-for-41 with five extra-base hits since the bubble weekends. Before the upsurge, she batted 6-for-26 and only had one double. Junior catcher Hannah Carson has become one of Michigan’s top hitters lately, batting .375 in the past 13 games compared to .233 in Florida.
Playing more games has allowed the Wolverines to shed their nerves. Hutchins often says “hitting is contagious” and getting relaxed at the plate is part of that.
“If somebody’s on, they pass (their energy) on to the next,” Carson said. “And even when they’re not, if somebody goes out there and has a good hit and the next person doesn’t get it done, they just pump up the next person up to bat.”
Twenty-five games worth of plate appearances and practices have allowed batters to find the rhythm Hutchins mentioned. In the Big Ten bubble in Leesburg, Fla., the Wolverines scored four or more runs only five times. During Michigan’s 12-1 tear since then, that’s happened nine times, although the Wolverines have faced weaker bullpens.
The Wolverines’ increase in power hitting accounts for some of that scoring. Outside of junior outfielder Lexie Blair, Michigan has tripled its production with 39 extra-base hits since the bubble weekends. After Blair sent two home runs over the Leesburg fences, the Wolverines depth players responded with 17 of their own in the past 13 games. As her teammates got used to the season, the offensive workload spread to more and more batters.
Now, more than halfway through the season, Michigan’s offense has climbed to the top of the conference, batting .308 and slugging .474 as a team. That kind of team success looked like a long shot when the season started, but as the team gets more and more reps, it looks increasingly like its reality.
Just because the Wolverines have improved does not mean their offense is spotless. In Friday’s game, the top five batters couldn’t hit the ball and left a sizable hole on offense. However, Michigan was still able to put up four runs and win the game. That ability to find offense throughout the lineup marks a change in the team’s production.
Starting the 2021 conference campaign without preseason games meant Michigan had to find that offense in the heart of a Big Ten battle. Despite that challenge, the offense has worked on its craft with each game played. The continued increase in offensive production suggests they’ve yet to hit their offensive ceiling.
But as the season continues, Michigan appears to come closer to answering its offensive questions.