As the end of the regular season nears, the No. 19 Michigan softball team stands two games behind No. 4 Minnesota in the Big Ten standings with three must-win games to go, all taking place this weekend at Rutgers.
For the Wolverines (38-10-1 overall, 17-3 Big Ten), the final series against the Scarlet Knights (14-34, 5-15) is their last opportunity to claim first place in the conference and the No. 1 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan is on a six-game win streak, including a three-game sweep of Indiana last week and an 8-0 run-rule victory over Western Michigan on Tuesday. The team’s average of 7.2 runs per game over the last six contests bodes well against a Rutgers pitching staff that allows a whopping 7.9 runs per game in conference play, a Big Ten worst.
The Scarlet Knights enter this series having survived even more disappointment by splitting a midweek doubleheader against Maryland on Wednesday.
Despite a woeful campaign, two Rutgers bright spots could present difficulty for the dominant Michigan right-handers, senior Megan Betsa and junior Tera Blanco. Freshman infielder Taryn Atlee leads the team with 64 hits and a .395 batting average — ranked first and seventh, respectively, in the conference. Junior infielder Rebecca Hall also adds spark with a career-high 12 home runs, sixth-most in the Big Ten.
Though the closest Wolverine to Hall’s long ball count is sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield, with eight, Michigan recently revived its power hitting with 14 home runs in the past six outings. During the same stretch, newer faces to the lineup such as sophomore catcher Alex Sobczak and freshman infielder Madison Uden added a needed boost to a consistently inconsistent offense, slugging a combined 12-for-30 — a .400 batting clip — with 10 runs batted in.
“Alex is another one who just stayed on course even though things didn’t go her way throughout a good period of the year,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “I’m happy some of her hard work is paying off, because she’s worked hard.”
Added Hutchins on Uden: “I’m just looking for people to get hits, hit the ball hard. She’s done that, she’s a good hitter. I like (her in the lineup).”
Veterans Blanco and senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano also contributed to the offensive surge with better at-bats, resulting in more run-producing plays.
“(Montemarano is) coming in early, and she’s accepting constructive criticism, and she’s accepting ideas,” Hutchins said. “She’s had better energy, and I think as you play better, you get better energy. Hopefully hitting her stride. Good time to hit it.”
Since 1983, the Wolverines have defeated the Scarlet Knights in all of their 10 matchups, and if the trend continues, Michigan will put the pressure on Minnesota as it vies for its tenth straight Big Ten regular season championship.