Before Sunday’s matinee against Northwestern, the No. 20 Michigan softball team — including coach Carol Hutchins — seemed looser during warmups than before its other games. As dancing and trust falls commenced, the Alumni Band, stationed in the right-center field bleachers, played the “Mission Impossible” theme song.
Their song selection foretold the story for the visiting Wildcats (1-5 Big Ten, 13-19 overall). Their mission to even ruffle the feathers of the Wolverines’ senior right-hander Megan Betsa seemed impossible.
In the final slate of the three-game series, Michigan (6-0 Big Ten, 26-7-1 overall) completed the weekend sweep with a 4-0 victory, its 12th consecutive win and seventh straight shutout.
Betsa pitched her own seventh shutout in a row, raising her scoreless inning count to 48. The senior fanned nine Northwestern batters while allowing just two hits and two walks. Though not her typical double-digit strikeout outing, Betsa didn’t appear fazed, eventually settling in during the middle innings.
Admitting that some of her mechanics were not their best early on, Betsa tried to find the “fast and fluid” attack of the strike zone that has made her one of the nation’s best hurlers. But with considerable adjustments from pitch to pitch, Betsa was able to find her rhythm. After squandering a single in the first and a double in the second, she retired the next 11 batters.
Prior to Betsa catching her stride, Hutchins made one of multiple trips to the circle — an unusual occurrence with Betsa pitching. She tried to calm her ace down and get her command back in check, focusing mostly on mentality over mechanics. Hutchins reminded Betsa that just because Northwestern already faced her Friday in a 10-0 Michigan win didn’t mean she had to try harder to be more effective.
“You don’t have to be better than zero. I don’t think you can be better than zero,” Hutchins said. “She’s a human, she’s going to have moments of doubt or just trying too hard. She wasn’t always in a good flow, but the fact that she responded was huge.”
Added Betsa: “My body speed wasn’t as good the first two innings. My arm speed wasn’t whipping. That was something that we talked about inning by inning, just staying loose, whipping my pitches, and I thought that got better as the game went on.”
The Wolverines’ offense, meanwhile, was better than zero, boosting Betsa with just enough run support to pick up the win. Steadily increasing its lead with one run in four straight innings, Michigan created more breathing room for its ace.
In the third inning, after a lengthy at-bat, sophomore catcher Katie Alexander hit a two-out single up the middle to drive in junior pinch runner Nikki Wald for the Wolverines’ first run. Junior first baseman Tera Blanco and sophomore outfielder Natalie Peters each tallied an RBI to increase the lead over the next two innings.
In the bottom of the fourth, sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield hit a long two-run homer to left field, only to have it called back due to Peters leaving first base early — an automatic out. The miscue negated much-needed insurance runs, instead leaving Michigan in a closely-contested 3-0 battle.
“We had to celebrate (the home run),” Hutchins said. “She womped it, so we just had to say, ‘It is what it is. We’re ahead, let’s play.’ ”
The fifth inning saw Michigan load the bases on two walks and a hit-by-pitch, and senior shortstop Abby Ramirez added a fourth run onto the scoreboard with a sacrifice fly.
As much as they looked to be having fun before the game, Hutchins believes it didn’t translate to the game itself, where she thought her players got into their own heads.
“They want things to go their way, and I thought today they let the fact that things weren’t going their way just deflate us,” Hutchins said. “We’d go up to the plate and have an opportunity, (but) the person at the plate would have a poor at-bat and that would deflate us. Just have a good at-bat because if you hit it hard, we can all be excited about that, but we were pretty outcome-oriented today and that doesn’t really work.”
But while the entire team may have struggled with mental deflation, Betsa remained her usual confident self, and that proved to be the difference.
“I honestly just feel confident, and I think it’s true confidence this time,” Betsa said Friday. “In the past, I’ve said that I’m confident, but I didn’t feel like I feel now. … I feel like most people aren’t going to score many runs off of me, and when runners get on base, I pretty much know I can get myself out of a jam.”