With just three games remaining in the regular season, the No. 23 Michigan softball team finds itself in unfamiliar territory.
The three-game series sweep — typically a hallmark of Wolverines’ past Big Ten campaigns — has eluded them thus far. Despite winning the series against all but two conference opponents, Michigan is yet to sweep any of them, outside of a two-game home-and-home series sweep against Michigan State.
But the past three weekends, a pattern has developed. The Wolverines drop the first game of the series, often struggling mightily and looking like the inferior team. But then they quickly recover, taking the final two games of the series and escaping with a winning record.
There’s plenty of reasons that this pattern could be attributed to. Maybe Michigan needs an external motivator, and that opening loss does the trick. Some members of the team joke about the Wolverines being cursed on Fridays. Others view it as a necessary step to learn more about their opponents.
“I don’t like to call it a slow start,” graduate second baseman Melina Livingston said after the victory over Minnesota last Saturday. “I like to call it gaining information.”
Still, it’s easy to take a negative outlook on this method. Other teams around the country sweep opponents, gaining enough information through pregame scouting and early at-bats to start the series right. So if other teams can do it, what’s stopping Michigan from doing the same?
But even with the worries that the first games bring, the constant recovery demonstrates something positive about the Wolverines:
This Michigan team is incredibly resilient.
And it shows in the games that the Wolverines have won over the past few weeks, microcosms of the entire series that they’ve played.
Start with, for example, the second game against Maryland. Just a day before, Michigan lost the series-opener handedly to a team it has never lost a series to. With a demoralizing loss like that, it would have been easy to fold over and let that loss define the series. But the Wolverines quickly rebounded, winning the next game on a go-ahead sacrifice bunt in extra innings before dominating the series finale.
A week later, that same resiliency was on full display against rival Ohio State. Despite blowing a lead in the top of the seventh inning in the second game of the series, Michigan started a rally in the bottom of the inning and won on a walk-off triple. The next day, the Buckeyes delivered a punch to the mouth in the form of four first-inning runs. But the Wolverines chipped away, eventually taking a 5-4 lead that never wavered and the series victory.
Finally, look at this past weekend’s series against the Golden Gophers. Michigan’s offense struggled early, so strong pitching and defense stepped up and grinded out a 1-0 win. A day later, the pitching faltered mid-game, surrendering an early three-run lead. So this time, the bats broke through, and the Wolverines triumphed once more.
All of this shows the newfound flexibility that Michigan has uncovered. The Wolverines have proven themselves insanely adaptable, bouncing back from tough losses by winning games in a myriad of ways.
Now, this leaves two ways to look at Michigan’s future prospects, particularly in the postseason.
Clearly, the Wolverines have struggled in opening games, and it cost them in the regular-season conference race. With the single-elimination Big Ten tournament approaching, taking too much time to gather information and losing a game spells the end of their conference championship hopes.
But Michigan has now established a track record of recovering from early losses. So who’s to say that in the double-elimination NCAA tournament, that first loss isn’t exactly what the Wolverines need to propel them forwards towards a deep run?
With that in mind, the possible outcomes of the season come into focus. Michigan can have one slow start too many and end its season earlier than desired despite its resiliency. Or, the Wolverines can continue to bounce back, and reach postseason goals that have eluded stronger regular-season Michigan teams in the past.
Because at this point, it’s clear that the Wolverines can adapt, begging only one more question:
Can they adapt fast enough?