In 35 years as the head coach of the Michigan softball team, Carol Hutchins has never lost to Rutgers. Entering the weekend, she had 15 victories in 15 tries.
Over the weekend, Hutchins put her unblemished record on the line when the 23rd-ranked Wolverines (23-10 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) traveled to Piscataway for a three-game set. Led by first-year head coach and former SEC Player of the Year Kristen Butler, the new-look Scarlet Knights (16-17, 0-6) looked to tarnish Hutchins’ perfect mark against them.
No such dent was made. Michigan swept Rutgers on its own turf, outscoring the Scarlet Knights by a combined 18 runs in the process. The final scores of 10-2, 7-0 and 7-4 extended the Wolverines’ winning streak to 11 games.
The journey to Rutgers marked Michigan’s first true road trip since the beginning of March, but the Wolverines aced the midseason road test, to say the least.
Despite playing its furthest conference series from Ann Arbor, Michigan didn’t need any time to settle in. The Wolverines plated a total of nine first-inning runs in the three games, giving sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien and freshman right-hander Alex Storako comfortable cushions before they even stepped foot into the circle.
“Scoring those runs early on really sets the tone and really sets great energy for the entire game,” said freshman left fielder Lexie Blair. “We want to keep that energy. You never want to let up, and setting the tone in games at this level is huge. It really helps the energy in the dugout and for the team.”
While Blair reached base in all three of her first-inning at-bats, it was senior first baseman Alex Sobczak who stole the show. Batting in the cleanup spot, she recorded a pair of RBI singles and a three-run blast in her three first-inning at-bats.
Sobczak’s first-inning production only marked the beginning of a monstrous weekend. She amassed six hits in nine at-bats, including three home runs, nine RBI and five runs scored in the series. After starting the season on the bench, Sobczak is now batting .385 with a team-high .708 slugging percentage and .535 on-base percentage. If the season ended today, her on-base plus slugging percentage (1.243) would be the highest the program has seen since 2016 National Player of the Year Sierra Romero posted a 1.460 OPS in her senior campaign.
“I’m seeing the ball pretty well,” Sobczak said. “My mindset going into the box is ‘Try not to suck and hit the ball really hard,’ and it’s really working out. It’s about having the approach that it’s a new at-bat and really trying to hit it hard and be locked in. My hard work has been paying off.”
While Sobczak and the rest of Michigan’s offense continued to make good contact, Beaubien consistently stymied Rutgers in the circle. She picked up her 12th and 13th wins of the season during the series, but her scoreless inning streak was snapped at 32.1 consecutive frames when Scarlet Knights shortstop Jess Hughes launched a one-out home run in the third inning of Friday’s game.
Beaubien’s response to the end of her streak? She brushed off the long ball by striking out the next batter before inducing a shallow pop fly to end the frame.
During the series, Beaubien pitched more than 12 of the 19 total innings — a workload consistent with the rest of 2019. Despite the fact that Beaubien has hurled more than half of Michigan’s innings this season, Hutchins has no qualms about the ace’s longevity.
“(Beaubien) is as durable a pitcher as I’ve ever had on my staff,” Hutchins said. “Credit to her. She does everything you need to do because taking care of yourself is important. Whether it’s cold-tubbing or going to see the trainer, she does it all. She keeps herself fit — kudos to her because she is as durable a pitcher as there is in the NCAA.”
After leaving Piscataway with their sixth Big Ten win in as many tries, the Wolverines join No. 19 Minnesota and Northwestern as the last Big Ten teams with a perfect conference record through two weekends. Michigan — which has outscored opponents 96-10 during this 11-game streak — is the hottest of the group.
Entering the weekend, Hutchins knew her team would have to play quality softball against a Rutgers team hungry to defeat the Wolverines. Twenty-four runs, 34 hits and three wins later, the zero in Hutchins’ loss column against the Scarlet Knights remains intact.
18 tries, 18 victories.