Michigan’s offense struggled against Michigan State on Wednesday, putting up one run over nine innings. Those issues seem to threaten its chances of winning its 22nd Big Ten title, which could come down to their performance against No. 23 Minnesota this weekend.
This weekend’s clash of conference titans will see the 19th-ranked Wolverines (29-5) play the Gophers (25-7) on the road. The top three Big Ten pitchers in ERA will face off in a series that could help Minnesota contend for that title as they sit four wins back with two fewer games played. Ensuring they don’t threaten Michigan’s chances means the offense will have to step up.
Junior right-hander Alex Storako and senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien have been surgical for the Wolverines this season, but they haven’t faced a ranked team. However, Minnesota bats in the middle of the conference, sitting at eighth, and appears to present a manageable challenge..
The real test will be for Michigan’s bats to keep their momentum up in Minneapolis. The Wolverines’ mantra this season has been that “hitting is contagious,” and getting off to a solid start could make the difference against a shutdown combo like right-handers Autumn Pease and Amber Fiser.
Those pitchers combined for 40 strikeouts in the Gophers’ four-game sweep of Northwestern earlier this season, holding one of the best hitting teams in the conference to just nine runs. If they have a similar performance this weekend, Michigan’s offense will have to make sure one bad at-bat doesn’t turn into three or four.
“Even when you’re having a bad game, you’ve got to still be confident that you can come up the next at-bat and get a hit,” senior first baseman Lou Allan said. “And honestly, I’ve just kind of come to terms with the fact that softball is a game of failure, and you know, you’re gonna get three out of 10 hits and you’re going to be deemed one of the great hitters on the team.”
But in Wednesday’s game against Michigan State, the Wolverines hit a speed bump. Through the first seven innings, Michigan couldn’t score and left the door wide open for the Spartans deep into the game. The same occurred to open the Northwestern series, as the Wildcats held them to a single run in the first game, one they largely controlled.
The Wolverines can’t afford to do that against Minnesota, but they have a major advantage in their favor — depth. Sophomore outfielder Lexie Voss has proved herself as a viable pinch hitter, while freshman infielder Kaylee Rodriguez and sophomore utility player Audrey LeClair have shown they can contribute at the plate in addition to their usage as pinch runners.
Depth might not be as appreciated as it should be, but it was key to winning the Northwestern series. When sophomore second baseman Julia Jimenez couldn’t find her rhythm at the batter’s box against Wildcat left-hander Danielle Williams, a pinch hit from sophomore pitcher Chandler Dennis led to a game-tying RBI double. If Michigan finds itself in a similar situation against the Gophers, that depth could make the difference.
Still, Michigan shouldn’t plan on dipping into its backups. The starting lineup will have to lay a solid foundation to keep each game in reach.
Competing with one another at the plate has led to the one-two punch of Allan and senior third baseman Taylor Bump. The duo combines for 16 of the Wolverines’ 28 home runs, and their success at swatting balls over the fences has snowballed all season as the two have compared their home runs.
That competition could put a little extra gas in the tank for them in what looks to be their biggest series of the regular season. It can change the way each batter approaches the plate knowing that they can get the job done, reinforcing the one-pitch softball that Michigan lives by.
“You can never look back on the past games, you can’t look too far ahead,” junior catcher Hannah Carson said. “Just staying in the moment, being where your feet are and just keeping up with the one pitch at a time, that’s all you can do.”
When this weekend’s series is finished, one team’s hopes at winning a Big Ten championship could all but end with it.