When its pitchers took the mound this weekend, the No. 21 Michigan softball team looked dangerous. At the plate, however, the Wolverines looked out of place.
Offensive struggles handed the No. 21 Michigan softball team two losses to Illinois on Sunday, the final games of a densely-packed opening weekend. Luckily for the Wolverines, they have seven practices to address those issues before they continue the season.
As last weekend progressed, Michigan’s problems bubbled to the surface. Despite senior Meghan Beaubien and junior Alex Storako posting sub-one ERAs, the Wolverines’ offense couldn’t carry them to victory.
“We didn’t have a great offense the first two days,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “And day three … the wheels kind of fell off I thought, mentally.”
A lukewarm production of four runs per game on Friday and Saturday quickly froze over on Sunday. Michigan had to fully exert itself to score just a single run in each of the games against the Illini.
Even when batters did hit the ball, Michigan struggled to bring them home, as an average of seven runners were left on base each game. In both of their opening weekend losses, the Wolverines left the tying runs on the field. They left 18 out of 19 runners in scoring position across the Illinois doubleheader.
Part of these hitting problems existed all weekend with swing timing. Off-speed pitches continuously caught Michigan guessing, a difficulty Illinois exploited. Drill work and live practice this week can help the Wolverines manage their swings.
More blame might be attributed to the mental side of the game. Pressure seemed to get the best of the Wolverines when the weight of the weekend was on their shoulders. Especially in situations with runners ready to score, the Wolverines buckled.
“The difference between the elite athlete and the average athlete is their mindset and the mental aspect of the game,” Hutchins said. “That is absolutely the key to playing elite softball.”
Usually, most of Michigan’s roster has been hardened in the pressure cooker of Big Ten play and the NCAA Tournament. But only about half of this team had played a Big Ten game before last weekend.
The sophomore class came in with only non-conference experience after the pandemic shut down last season. The freshmen came in completely green. Scaling this barrier is going to be key for Michigan’s offense to get back on track.
Drills before the next games could help prepare those underclassmen. Fielding reps and live at-bats could also help simplify the game and help Michigan play in the moment, as that was one of its greatest undoings last weekend.
Players making their debuts last weekend got to feel what college ball feels like, a crucial foundation for them to start adjusting to the collegiate game and helping Michigan win. Addressing the lessons from that experience could be key for players to make that big next step before the team’s next road trip.
“It was a little bit nerve-wracking, but after I got my first hit under my belt, I felt more at peace with it, and I was just more excited to just keep rolling with it,” freshman infielder Sierra Kersten said. “Obviously you have a little pep in your step when you first get up there, but it was still really exciting, and it’s just really enjoyable for the most part.”
Michigan’s long practice schedule offers a less obvious benefit: Batters get to practice against two highly-skilled pitchers. Beaubien earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors for her efforts last weekend and Storako had similar performances. If the Wolverines can hit off of their own bullpen, that could bode well for them against other pitchers.
Michigan now has some time to experiment, something that’s usually unheard of during the season. Last year, the Wolverines’ biggest break between games was five days. The long slate of practices could give the Wolverines an opportunity to make changes in a more relaxed environment than a game. These opportunities to polish performances look increasingly important as Michigan learns where it’s at after almost a year off.
Future opportunities to practice will be limited by playing four games almost every weekend. The way the Wolverines treat these practice blocks will determine whether they look back on them with pride or guilt.
After a dismal weekend at the plate, Michigan hopes it’s not the latter.