Jogging off the field after escaping a second-inning jam against Penn State last Friday, junior right-hander Tera Blanco was met by an enraged Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. As Hutchins’ voice boomed toward Blanco, echoing around Alumni Field, the game’s urgency grew. The Wolverines were stuck in a scoreless contest against a program that they had beaten in their last 25 tries.
It was obvious Hutchins’ team wasn’t playing to her standards. She yelled at her hitters to be more aggressive at the plate from the third base coach’s box, using demonstrative swings and hand motions to illustrate her point.
Despite Hutchins’ animated reaction, Michigan didn’t raise its level of play. In a game left scoreless until the fifth inning, the Wolverines were unable to get timely hits until errors and walks by Penn State eventually gave the game away.
Those first four innings of scoreless softball have largely represented what the Wolverines’ season has been thus far: playing tensely but not particularly well at times, despite posting a 22-7-1 record. In more high-pressured games against ranked opponents, Michigan is just 2-6-1.
“I think when the kids feel the pressure, they try too hard,” Hutchins said during the Judi Garman Classic in early March. “That’s exactly what is going on with them."
On Friday — though not against a nationally ranked team — the Wolverines certainly felt the pressure, causing a lackluster start to a series though they ultimately won the game, 3-0.
But there’s a remedy for that tightness: getting on the board first. That’s what Michigan did against those same Nittany Lions on Sunday, pushing across five runs in the opening frame and winning 17-0 behind a no-hitter from senior right-hander Megan Betsa.
The Wolverines enjoyed themselves, leaving the field with smiles and giving high-fives to each other while vocal support came from the dugout.
Hutchins believes that these three aspects — early leads, scoring first, and playing loose — are all interconnected.
“Certainly in a game like that when you jump on them and you’re up by five, you don’t feel tight,” Hutchins said. “When you’re not tight, you do play better.”
Opening the scoring could be Achilles’ Heel for her team.
When Michigan scores first, it has a 22-1 record this season. When the Wolverines don’t, they’re a meager 2-5-1.
Of course, the first team to cross home plate maintains the innate benefit of purely scoring a run. But in Michigan’s case, scoring first aids the team’s ability to stay relaxed.
“Once we were ahead, we got a lot of good swings,” Hutchins said. “We weren’t as tight. Especially when you’re up in the series, they’re just trying to get a game from you. (Scoring in the first inning) puts a stake in it. You could feel that Penn State was pretty deflated after the first inning.”
And as her team poured it on the Nittany Lions on Sunday afternoon, Hutchins’ face became more relaxed from that third base line. She wasn’t aggressively swinging her hands or shouting at players with the same ferocity as she did Friday.
That’s because it proved to be no longer necessary. Thanks to an early lead, the Wolverines — for one of the few times this season — simply played loosely.