When it comes to versatility, Natalia Rodriguez is in a class of her own.
Now in her second season as the Michigan softball team’s starting shortstop, the sophomore can do it all. She’s a switch-hitter at the plate, speed demon on the base paths and defensive stalwart in the field.
But above all, Rodriguez provides consistency. She appeared in 55 of last season’s 59 contests and has started all 39 of the Wolverines’ games so far this year.
Rodriguez’s defensive prowess played a major role in 2018’s seamless shortstop transition. After Michigan bid farewell to Abby Ramirez — a two-time All-Big Ten shortstop who graduated in 2017 — Rodriguez held her own on defense as a freshman. Her .944 fielding percentage was only a slight drop-off from Ramirez’s .953 clip in 2017.
At the plate, Rodriguez has taken a massive leap forward. After posting a .250 batting average last season — the worst among the Wolverines’ starters — Rodriguez spent much of the offseason in the batting cage. Now, as one of the country’s only true switch-hitters, she poses a threat regardless of the situation. Her ability to bunt from both sides of the plate, slap-hit from the left side and swing away from the right side makes her the Big Ten’s jack of all trades.
Through 87 at-bats this season, the results have spoken for themselves. With the home stretch of Michigan’s conference slate on the horizon, Rodriguez’s batting average is sitting at .310.
Naturally, Rodriguez’s batting average boost has given her more opportunity to wreak havoc on the base paths. After swiping 10 bases on 12 tries last season, Rodriguez has successfully stolen seven bags on eight attempts so far this season. Her speed gives opposing pitchers one more thing to worry about, which opens up opportunities for other Wolverines to find success at the plate.
“(Rodriguez stealing a base) manufactures a run,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “You’ve got to find a way to manufacture runs, and one of those is to steal their bases. It puts us in position, and it is a difference maker.”
The synergy of Rodriguez’s improvement at the plate and elite speed puts Hutchins in a dilemma. With the team’s leadoff through cleanup hitters all batting above .340 with at least 20 RBI, it doesn’t make sense to insert Rodriguez’s skillset into the heart of the order. So instead, she bats last.
The only qualm about hitting ninth is the fact that it takes the bat out of Rodriguez’s hands at times. Heading into the second half of April, Rodriguez already has upwards of 30 fewer at-bats than some of her teammates.
But for Hutchins, strategy outweighs total plate appearances.
“It’s really important to have that nine hitter be your secondary leadoff,” Hutchins said. “It puts base runners on — someone with great speed — for the top of your order. (Rodriguez) has been outstanding in that category, and we need her to keep it up.”
Added junior right fielder Haley Hoogenraad: “(Rodriguez) is a huge turnover for the start of the lineup. She’s basically like another number one hitter. She bats at the top of the order but turns the order over a lot by getting on base a lot somehow. That’s so important in the bottom of the order, just finding a way to get bases. Bases are how you win games.”
With Rodriguez holding down the fort in the ninth spot, the Wolverines set the top of their order up for success.