For a group that relied on home runs and extra base hits so heavily last season, the Michigan softball team’s recent offensive approach might be surprising.
Lately, it has been bunts and steals that have allowed the Wolverines to pull out close victories, including one Tuesday against Michigan State.
With runners on first and second in the fourth inning, senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano dropped down a bunt to push a pair of Michigan players into scoring position. Sophomore catcher Katie Alexander followed with a dribbling single down the line, scoring two on an error by the Spartan third baseman.
When Michigan State cut its deficit to one an inning later, a similar strategy proved to be advantageous in reclaiming a multi-run lead.
After junior outfielder Nikki Wald stole second, senior shortstop Abby Ramirez lined a single into left field, allowing Wald to touch home.
These runs would be enough for the Wolverines to clinch a 3-1 win — small ball playing a part in all three of their runs.
But this strategy didn’t work last Sunday at Maryland.
With her team trailing by two and a runner on first base, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins called for Montemarano to lay down a bunt. She so did successfully, but the following pair of Michigan batters grounded out to end the inning.
The Wolverines would eventually come back to win in impressive fashion, but the possibility of a bigger inning earlier was limited due to the decision to bunt.
Hutchins remains steadfast in her commitment to pushing across runs in any way possible, however, even when it sacrifices outs in the process.
“We haven’t had a big inning in a long time,” Hutchins said. “That’s not my concern. My concern is how can I get some runs on the board — any run.”
This displays a greater issue for the Michigan offensive attack, which has largely fallen below expectations so far. The small-ball approach is a stark contrast to last season, when the Wolverines used home runs and extra-base hits to score extensively.
In 2016, Michigan hit 86 home runs — good for fourth nationally. It ranks 99th this season, averaging just .66 homers per game.
“We have to find other ways to score,” Hutchins said. “If we’re not going to hit the ball far, we have to do something else, bunt, steal, run no matter what.”
Added Ramirez: “We work on small ball in practice. Sometimes, we’re not going to get the big hits, so we need to figure out how to manufacture some runs. (Small ball) is just as big a part of our game as the other stuff.”
That commitment was especially evident on the Ramirez RBI single Tuesday, as Hutchins decided to send Wald home despite the presence of Spartan left fielder Ebony Echols, who played just steps away from the infield dirt.
“I was running no matter what,” Hutchins said. “Echols was very shallow so we were fortunate, but we’re not stopping anyone on third base.”
With the bats of yesteryear, Hutchins might have been less likely to take the risks she has lately — both on the base paths and in sacrificing outs.
But with the offense’s lackluster outputs of late, it’s no surprise why Hutchins has become so deeply tied to playing small ball.