Natalia Rodriguez stood on first base, waiting. As the Western Michigan pitcher threw pitch after pitch, the sophomore shortstop darted away from the base, getting halfway to second and heading back to first without being caught.
Suddenly, Rodriguez received the signal. She sprang into action on the base paths, easily reaching second before the ball did. Rodriguez turned a following single from junior catcher Abby Skvarce into an opportunity to run home from position at second, accounting for the second of the No. 25 Michigan softball team’s (15-10) three runs during the game.
“We just send her because she has a great chance to get to second,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “We need the base. Obviously, we needed that base. She’s fast.”
This confidence from her coach is nothing new for Rodriguez. During her high school career, she held the Montverde Academy record with 31 stolen bases.
So far this season, she has succeeded in all seven of her attempts to steal a base, top on the Wolverines and 11th in the Big Ten.
This level of success is a far cry from her performance in the same category during her freshman year. At this point in last year’s season, Rodriguez had stolen just three bases. By the end of the season, she had succeeded on 10 of just 12 attempts. She is on track to far outpace that number this season. Rodriguez sets the table for the Wolverines, who have stolen 25 bases on 30 attempts this season.
But Rodriguez doesn’t think about this tremendous improvement when she runs.
“I focus on the jump, when to leave — making sure not to leave early,” Rodriguez said. “As soon as it’s out of her hand, I’m taking off, not looking at the catcher and focusing on making it to the bag.”
Hutchins has consistently emphasized the importance of getting runs by “going base-to-base,” a strategy that is more feasible when a runner like Rodriguez is able to get herself into scoring position so frequently.
“I think it’s nice when a hitter is up to bat, they know all they have to do is get a base hit, and I’ll score a run,” Rodriguez said. “It gets everyone excited and keeps it moving.”
The Wolverines have struggled to “keep it moving” offensively in several games, particularly in the beginning of the season. When the hits are few and far between, stealing bases becomes an integral part of winning the game. And a number of times this season, Michigan has used this strategy to its benefit.
After a low-scoring 3-0 win over Western Michigan on Tuesday, Hutchins emphasized the importance of finding different ways to win.
“(Rodriguez stealing a base) manufactures a run. We weren’t swinging very well today,” Hutchins said. “You’ve got to find a way to manufacture runs, and one of those is to steal their bases. It puts us in position, and it is a difference maker.”
With Big Ten games just on the horizon, Rodriguez wants to continue to make that difference.
“When I’m on (base), I want to be able to run,” Rodriguez said. “I want to use that to our advantage.
“I just want to use my speed.”