Another weekend of Michigan softball.
Another weekend of inconsistency.
After they defeated two top-five teams in their best tournament of the season at the Judi Garman Classic last week, the Wolverines traveled to the Arizona State Invitational, where they reverted to their old ways.
Primed with an opportunity to build on its nonconference resume, No. 25 Michigan (12-10) started the weekend against No. 21 James Madison (11-5). Freshman right-hander Alex Storako pitched a shutout for the first eight innings but the Wolverine offense stranded runners on base time and time again.
And the Dukes made Michigan pay when they cracked the code to Storako in the top of the ninth, tallying three runs and running away with the victory.
“It was more of a three-up, three-down kind of game,” Storako said. “We had energy the entire game. I just think it was my second complete game, so definitely, I just need to work on more endurance. But it’s just a bummer that it turned out the way it did.”
But right when it seemed like they had lost their touch from the previous weekend, the Wolverines came out swinging in hostile territory, gunning to a 6-1 lead later that night against No. 16 Arizona State (18-7). This game was the exact opposite from the last. As soon as the offense started clicking, sophomore left-hander pitcher Meghan Beaubien collapsed, giving up five runs and allowing the Sun Devils to creep back into a game that should have been comfortably put away.
Fresh off throwing nine innings just a few hours prior, Storako took the game into her hands, securing the last four outs of the night to put the home team to sleep, 7-6.
“I think my perspective falls along with our team perspective,” Storako said. “We’ve been really focusing on just being able to focus pitch-by-pitch. Just having the mentality of, this isn’t a seven-inning game, we need to not only pay attention to each inning but each pitch. And every pitch, by the time it’s all said and done, it all adds up to seven innings and I think that’s helped not only just me but a lot of the team as well.”
With the toughest stretch of its season finally over, Michigan blew past Lehigh (6-6) and New Mexico State (9-11), winning 5-0 and 3-0, respectively.
Going into the final day of the tournament, it seemed like unranked South Dakota (16-11) would have its hands full with the Wolverines, who had won six of their last seven. But the Coyotes came to play.
Sophomore right-handed pitcher Sarah Schaefer, in her first start of the season, gave up three earned runs in her first 14 pitches and was pulled out in the first inning.
And even though the deficit was manageable, Michigan failed to drive in runs as the Wolverines dropped the game 6-4.
“We left ten runners on base today,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “That has been our Achilles heel, keeping runners on base, swinging well under pressure. Our batting practice swings and our game swings need to start matching up better.”
In a vacuum, 3-2 on the weekend isn’t bad. But in the grand scheme of the season, this weekend reopened some wounds that seemed to be closing last weekend.
The players talk about the same issues week in and week out.
We weren’t taking it one pitch at a time.
We think too much.
We lacked energy.
But there doesn’t seem to be a clear solution. In fact, there seems to be a disconnect in terms of identifying the problem – and in searching for solutions.
For example, freshman outfielder Lexie Blair, among other players, thinks the pitching staff has been doing well and “shutting the good teams down.”
Hutchins claims otherwise, which could be a sign of the players being unwilling to hold one another accountable, at least publicly.
“I think our pitching can be better than it is, it needs to be more consistent,” Hutchins said. “We need to attack the zone, we give up too many free bases whether it’s on balls that bounce in or balls that miss their spot. And we walk or hit batters. That needs to improve, that’s championship-caliber softball.”
“We need everybody to take ownership of what we don’t do well,” Hutchins said. “It will help us to where we do things well.”
Regardless of what the problems are, the team has one more week of nonconference to figure it out before Big Ten play begins. Hutchins’ message to the team is clear.
“I want to see us get in the jungle. We need to be jungle tigers, (not zoo tigers). We need to get in the jungle and understand that’s the only way we’re going to get our prey.”