With just five contests from the Wilson-Demarini Tournament under its belt, the No. 11 Michigan softball team (3-2 overall) is at the onset of its regular season. And in the words of coach Carol Hutchins, the fairly young team has some growing to do.
The Wolverines’ opening weekend featured a constant battle of ups and downs, underscored by two tough losses on Saturday — including a relatively unexpected 6-4 loss to USF. One constant, though, was senior center fielder Kelly Christner, who batted .533 with eight hits on the weekend.
Though it’s far too early to coin anything a trend, certain aspects of the weekend shouldn’t be ignored as the team moves forward this season.
The unpredictable performance of the pitching rotation, which demonstrated both great strengths and faults in the span of three days, proved to be one of the main areas of focus. Senior right-hander Megan Betsa provided an unwavering presence, posting a 0.41 earned-run average, striking out 15 against Delaware — just one K short of her single-game record. Fanning 27 over the course of the weekend, the pitching ace currently ranks eighth nationally in total strikeouts.
“I was pretty happy with my overall performance, other than the number of pitches I threw,” Betsa said. “Hutch told me on multiple occasions that I’m better than almost everyone I face, and I just need to believe that and trust my pitches and attack each hitter.”
For her dominance in the circle, Betsa received recognition as the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week for the seventh time in her career. Though Michigan eventually fell to Florida, 2-1, in its first Saturday loss, Hutchins credits Betsa with keeping the Wolverines in the game during the 10-frame contest, as she allowed only one earned run while striking out 12 batters.
Junior right-hander Tera Blanco had a packed weekend as well, starting a game each day on the mound. She earned two wins in three games pitched, highlighted by tossing eight strikeouts against Illinois State.
Despite their accomplishments, both Betsa and Blanco’s performances were also marred. Besta was displeased with the great deal of pitches she fired in her two outings in the circle, throwing 190 against the Gators alone.
“We threw a lot of pitches and we gave up a lot of free bases in the (Florida) game,” Hutchins said. “And they were turning their lineup over for the third time when we had just finished going through once.”
Blanco, still relatively new to the collegiate pitching climate, experienced a fair share of inconsistency last weekend. Facing South Florida on Saturday, she allowed six runs off nine hits, yet she retired seven straight batters the day before.
The lack of sharpness and consistency from the circle will have to be amended in order for the rotation to obtain the depth it seeks.
Before the season began, Hutchins — unsure of how Michigan’s first contests would go — made it clear that the need for unseasoned players to step up this year was imperative, and she had no doubt her players would rise to the occasion.
Her call was answered by four Wolverine sophomores. On the first day of competition, second baseman Faith Canfield, right fielder Natalie Peters, left fielder Courtney Richardson and catcher Alex Sobczak spearheaded Michigan’s offensive efforts, accounting for 12 of Michigan’s 19 hits and eight runs batted in.
Richardson was Friday’s leading hitter, driving in a three-run homer against Illinois State. While she had only one hit last season, she saw five in the past weekend alone, batting an impressive .417.
Last year, Peters saw 16 total at-bats and obtained five hits. During her time in Florida, she surpassed those numbers with 18 at-bats from the leadoff position and six hits.
“(Peters) was really one of our steadiest performers over (last) weekend,” Hutchins said.
These underclassmen all started a majority of the games throughout the weekend, and proved themselves as both reliable fielders and batters for the Wolverines, exactly what Hutchins had trusted they would be able to do.
Both the evolution of the pitching rotation and the growth of Michigan’s underclassmen will be key elements for the team as it seeks to find success this season.