Playing four games on the road is a challenge against any team. Playing against a bitter rival only adds more to overcome.
That feeling only intensifies knowing that the Buckeyes have stolen games from Minnesota and Northwestern this season, two of the top teams in the Big Ten. Facing consistent bats and power hitters throughout the Ohio State batting order, Michigan’s pitchers will need to step up to make sure Michigan doesn’t join that list in this weekend’s series.
Pitching has led the No. 23 Wolverines’ success through much of the season. Whether the offense comes or not, opposing batters find it hard to earn runs as the bullpen squashes scoring opportunities.
“When they’re doing well and when they’re keeping us in a game, it’s just a matter of time before someone’s going to get a big hit,” senior third baseman Taylor Bump told reporters on March 30. “And someone’s going to spark that rally that we need to score those runs.”
Opposing teams have found it increasingly difficult to keep scoring low against the Buckeyes. While Michigan saw its series against Michigan State postponed due to COVID-19, Ohio State hit its stride as it took on a struggling Penn State squad.
Looking at the first game of the series, the stats would suggest the Buckeyes’ order will prove to be quick work for Michigan’s staff, but they played that game without one of the Big Ten’s hottest bats: utility Sam Hackenbracht.
Hackenbracht rejoined Ohio State’s lineup for the next two games, and the offense fired up almost instantly. Batting .833 and hitting three home runs over two games, she earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors for her efforts.
For Michigan’s pitchers, neutralizing a hot player comes as familiar territory. In a three-game series against Nebraska, senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien and junior right-hander Alex Storako held Tristen Edwards to a .125 batting average. A key part of this came at the plate, as the pitchers forced four strikeouts from Edwards, the Big Ten’s reigning Player of the Week before that game.
Unlike the Cornhuskers, however, Ohio State boasts four other hitters averaging above .300, providing offense throughout the order. Managing many solid bats has caused headaches for opposing bullpens, especially if one of them gets on base. Handling Hackenbracht at the dish is a necessity if Michigan wants to prevent other bats from potentially bringing her home.
No matter how well the bullpen performs, the Buckeyes will inevitably get runners on base. It will be key for Beaubien, Storako and senior right-hander Sarah Schaefer to prevent those from turning into runs.
“I don’t want them to concern about the things they don’t control in the game,” Wolverine coach Carol Hutchins said. “ … What they can do better is just stay focused on their one-pitch moment, and that’s all we can ask for.”
That one-pitch mentality has guided Michigan to success this season, but Ohio State will be a different kind of test. The Buckeyes use their skilled order to string together hits, swarming opposing defenses. Adding the heat of a bitter rivalry to the mix, this series might be one of the toughest so far for Michigan’s pitchers.
Michigan’s pitchers have shown talent all season, but facing Ohio State will be a different test. With COVID-19 protocols leaving the Wolverines’ roster shorthanded, solid efforts from their pitching staff will be essential.
“(Ohio State is) in our way, and they’re a good team and they can play ball,” Hutchins said. “I expect this to be a classic battle.”
Michigan will be facing an uphill battle this weekend, but the way it handles the Buckeyes’ skilled batters could frame the rest of the season.