Now in her 35th season, Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins knows a starter when she sees one.
When it came time to tab nine of them ahead of the team’s opening weekend, Hutchins felt ready to go all-in on just three: senior second baseman Faith Canfield, freshman left fielder Lexie Blair and senior center fielder Natalie Peters.
It was an open secret that Canfield, an All-American last season, and Blair, the No. 28 prospect in the 2018 class, were shoo-ins. Peters, on the other hand, came into 2019 coming off a regression year that followed a stellar sophomore campaign. After posting a .361 batting average en route to second team All-Big Ten honors in 2017, Peters’ average tumbled by 49 points to a .312 clip last season.
The beginning of Peters’ senior year suggested her best days may be in the past. Through her first 17 games of 2019, she hobbled to a .234 batting average across 47 at-bats.
But in the past month, Peters has put any questions of whether she peaked as a sophomore to rest.
“(Peters) has been locked in at the plate,” Hutchins said. “She’s starting to see herself in that role, she seems to be seeing herself as an ‘I’m going to get this done’ (player).”
Peters has posted six multi-hit games and a .434 average over her last 20 games. She played an integral role in last weekend’s sweep of Indiana, racking up six hits in eight at-bats. On Friday, she tallied three hits and drove in two of Michigan’s four runs before scoring a third herself.
After singling, stealing a base and drawing a walk in Saturday’s game, Peters had herself a series finale to remember. She doubled in the seventh inning before coming around to score on senior designated player Kenzie Nemitz’s walk-off double.
Peters has spent most of the season sandwiched between Canfield and Blair in the two-hole of Hutchins’ batting order. Being wedged between two of the country’s most dangerous matchups means she doesn’t get a lot of attention as a slap hitter, but her bat has quietly played a major role in the Wolverines’ offensive revival. During its current 15-game win streak, Michigan is averaging nearly nine runs per game — a stark contrast to the 3.59 runs per game it averaged through the first five weeks of the season.
By getting on base, Peters creates opportunities to drive in runs for Blair and senior first baseman Alex Sobczak, who lead the team with 32 and 25 RBI, respectively. Though the Wolverines sit atop the Big Ten, the pressure of being a senior as the regular season winds down doesn’t faze Peters in the slightest.
If anything, it drives her to embrace the stage that these opportunities provide.
“I’ve worked so hard my whole life and now is the time when I can just finally play,” Peters said. “I’m really not trying to think about the fact that it’s April. Everything I’m working for is for the team, it’s not for anybody else.”
Despite her strong numbers at the plate, Peters’ impact is most felt as a leader. As the only senior outfielder on the roster, Peters has taken a number of younger players under her wing.
Blair has felt the effects of Peters’ efforts first-hand, particularly on defense. After Blair’s fielding error allowed the Hoosiers to take a fourth-inning lead on Sunday, Peters was the first player by her side.
Peters reminded her that “there was a lot of game left” — a sentiment that settled Blair’s nerves as Michigan began its eventual comeback.
“I truly look up to (Peters),” Blair said. “Since day one when I stepped on campus, from the first practice, I’ve looked up to her as a mentor. … She knows the ropes around here, she’s experienced, and it’s not like she doesn’t thinks of herself as above everyone, which is what I really look up to. She’s poised out there, she’s calm, cool and collected and she’s a great mentor.
“(Peters) is always talking to me before every pitch, just telling me what to do or where to move. Little stuff like that is what really helps in the game. She gets on me about the details to make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
With the crescendo of her career on the horizon, Peters has stepped up to the plate both as a hitter and leader.