Last week, Natalie Peters started a game against Michigan State with her trademark swing, running through the batter’s box and slapping a pitch back up the middle for a single.
On the next hitter’s base-knock, the sophomore outfielder sprinted from first to third, making use of her keen baserunning instincts to beat the throw from the Spartan left fielder.
And two pitches later, Peters scored the first run of an eventual 5-1 victory for the Michigan softball team.
That kind of spark has been on display all season from Peters, utilizing her speed and slap-hitting style to give the Wolverines early advantages.
In 35 starts from the lead-off spot, she is hitting .352 with six stolen bases and 30 runs.
“Natalie has done a really nice job getting on base for us and being a catalyst,” said associate head coach Bonnie Tholl. “She continues to learn the game, and her skills and mechanics are getting better and better.”
One of those skills — her quickness — has given Peters an edge both on the base paths and in the outfield this season, chasing down balls that few other outfielders in the Big Ten are able to reach.
Offensively, Peters allows Michigan to move runners in scoring position without putting the ball in play. This has become especially useful lately, as the Wolverines have consistently struggled to put runners in scoring position.
“It’s an added pressure for the catcher,” Tholl said. “Sometimes, they can’t frame the pitches as well because they’re more concerned about Natalie stealing. It always puts pressure on the defense when you have great speed.”
That pressure was on display in Peters’ first career home run last month — an inside the parker that was misplayed by a rushed Eastern Michigan left fielder.
Though Peters might look like an experienced veteran at the top of the order, she made her first start for the Wolverines at the beginning of this year.
During her freshman season, Peters received just 16 at-bats in 21 appearances — mostly as a pinch hitter. Despite a batting average of .313 in those opportunities, Peters remained largely in the background on a team that advanced to the Women’s College World Series.
In the time she spent watching from the dugout, however, Peters learned from then senior outfielders Sierra Lawrence and Kelly Susalla, developing a drive to be a great player and not just a part of the Wolverine lineup she was constantly left out of.
Acting upon that desire, Peters spent the summer in Ann Arbor to improve her slap-hitting fundamentals and strength.
But visits to an in-house sports psychologist were most important to her offseason regimen, during which Peters focused on clearing her mind when countering adversity.
According to Hutchins, Peters concentrated on creating mental categories and strategies for a variety of in-game situations.
“As she countered the issues that arose, she had really good processes lined up that she had learned,” Hutchins said. “She expanded her mental capacity and came back a new woman from freshman to sophomore year.”
Using what she learned over the summer, Peters caught Hutchins’ eye in fall exhibitions with surprising power, driving balls into gaps for numerous extra-base hits.
“She was so impressive all fall by hitting gapers,” Hutchins said. “Natalie has great power off that slap.”
Thus, Peters earned the lead-off spot in the Michigan batting order, beating out senior shortstop Abby Ramirez — the presumed number one hitter.
From that first pitch against the Spartans, Peters displayed just how valuable she can be, crossing home for Michigan’s first run following her lead-off single.
Thanks to that time learning on the bench and her mental improvements last summer, Peters has become that catalyst all season long.