On Friday, the Michigan softball team will kick off its postseason run. Although it hoped a Big Ten championship would have earned them the right to do so from the familiar confines of Alumni Field, they will instead begin the tournament in the Seattle regional — facing a trio of Pacific Northwest opponents.
The softball beat lays out its predictions for how the Wolverines will perform in the first NCAA softball tournament in two years.
Michigan didn’t earn a seed in the NCAA Tournament this year, despite winning the Big Ten comfortably. No matter how much of a snub that may be, the Wolverines still have a chance in the postseason, and they can use those feelings as fuel for a potential run.
That run begins against Seattle University, which should be easy work for the Wolverines. The Redhawks have an offense that matches well against Michigan, but their bullpen won’t be able to hang with senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien and junior right-hander Alex Storako.
Then the trouble starts.
To make it out of the regional, Michigan has to beat Washington twice. The Huskies have succeeded all season, with two players in the Top 10 list for USA Softball National Player of the Year. Pitcher Gabbie Plain became a finalist for that award on Wednesday, and it’s easy to see why. She started the season 23-0 and has an ERA of 1.19 over 200 innings pitched.
The Wolverines can beat them with a combination of aggressive pitching and efficient at-bats. Players like senior first baseman Lou Allan and senior third baseman Taylor Bump have to keep hitting deep to score any runners Michigan can get on base. They’ve been able to do that against Big Ten opponents, but the Wolverines haven’t seen anyone like Washington this year.
If Michigan beats the Huskies, I don’t see them getting past the super regional. That’s because it would have to take on a dominant Oklahoma team on their own turf. The Sooners scorched teams all season, leading the nation with a .419 batting average. Utility player Jocelyn Alo batted .479 on the year and hit 27 home runs with 75 RBI. Alo’s going to have a field day with just about any pitcher thrown her way. Michigan defines itself by its defense, but it’s no match for Oklahoma. Michigan will be sent home after losing to Oklahoma in the super regional.
The longer I think about the regional that begins Friday night in Seattle, the more unsure I become.
Michigan has the talent to make it out, and even beat Washington on their home field — though under head coach Heather Tarr the Huskies are 30-0 at home in regional play. The Wolverines will have to play their best ball of the season. You’ve heard all about Gabbie Plain — she will probably be Michigan’s biggest hurdle — so I won’t just tell you how good she is again. Instead, I’ll use my time to talk about how Washington hits with power the likes of which the Wolverines haven’t seen all year. Three batters slugging over 0.600, as a team averaging over 1.2 home runs per game and a player in Baylee Klingler who is slugging 0.822. Whether or not Michigan’s aces — Storako and Beaubien — will be able to handle the Huskies bats will probably decide this series. Though, obviously, the Wolverines will need big performances from the players they have leaned on and to not fall into offensive stagnation like they have at times this year.
So, how will it go?
I’ve gone back and forth on this all week. On Tuesday I said on the Daily sports podcast Highway to Hail — which you should listen to — that Michigan was going to win because they have two aces and Washington only has one. I’m going to stand by this prediction for a few reasons. One, outside of Klingler, the Huskies and the Wolverines have alarmingly similar teams. Yes, Washington has a few more batters over 0.300, but overall there isn’t much to separate them. Two, the point of Michigan having more star pitchers than the Huskies still stands. If these two teams go to a second game on Sunday night, the scales will be tilted in favor of the Wolverines. And three, I simply don’t buy into the Washington hype. Yes, they were ranked fifth in the country, but they’ve lost two of their last three games — against a mediocre Stanford team no less. They lost their toughest series against UCLA, three games to one. And Plain just won’t be able to pitch every inning for them. Husky pitchers not named Gabbie Plain have a combined 12-9 record. So, if Michigan can force a second game on Sunday night, I like their chances at making the super regional.
But, that’s where the Wolverines road will end. Awaiting the Seattle winner will most likely be top-seeded Oklahoma. For the Sooners, Michigan will simply be a minor speed bump on their way to the College World Series where they will win it all.
Whenever the beat gets together to make predictions, it’s always important to note that I was the only one to predict Michigan winning the Big Ten in our first-pitch podcast earlier in the season. That must count for something, right? Sure, my fellow beat members would be quick to point out that some key predictions I made didn’t pan out that day, but I’m confident in my following assessment on the Wolverines’ playoff chances.
After a long day of travel on Wednesday, Michigan will look to settle into the Pacific Northwest with a matchup against Seattle University on Friday night. It should have no issues handling the Redhawks, and will quickly turn its attention to the hosts of the regional: Washington.
Both teams are playing with chips on their shoulders for how they were seeded in the tournament. The Huskies walked out of their watch party after receiving a 16th seed from the NCAA, while Hutchins said that the D-1 Softball Committee disrespected the entire Big Ten conference. With anger running high, a best-of-three grudge match will ensue over the weekend.
Many signs point to Washington winning the regional. They are the home team; were ranked No. 6 in the final USA Today/NFCA coaches poll; boast an extensive and versatile batting order; and are led by one of the finalists for NCAA Player of the Year in pitcher Gabbie Plain. Yet, I believe the Wolverines will prevail.
They’ll edge out Washington on Saturday by deploying both of their stellar aces in senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien and the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in junior right-hander Alex Storako. Dealing with both Beaubien and Storako in one matchup will keep the Huskies’ hitters off-balance. Michigan will find a way to sneak a run or two home to get the win, most likely via a home run by senior first baseman Lou Allan, who will make Plain for the one mistake she’ll make in the contest.
Plain will handle her business, plain and simple, in the first game on Sunday, setting up a winner-take-all Sunday night affair. With Plain having pitched a complete game to force the second game on Sunday, the Wolverines will expose Washington’s average bullpen. The Huskies’ strong lineup, however, will be far more familiar with Beaubien and Storako as well. I expect a high-scoring, long-ball-filled Sunday night, but when the dust settles, Michigan will come out on top, hoisting the regional championship, and dousing Hutchins with what I predict will be blue Gatorade.
The Wolverines’ postseason success will come to a screeching halt when they head to Norman, Okla. for the super regional. I can see them managing to upset Oklahoma in game one, but the Sooners will come back with a vengeance, cruising through the next two games to head to the College World Series. Oklahoma will eventually win it all behind the most dangerous and powerful batting order in the nation.
No matter how “disrespected” Michigan — or the Washington Huskies for that matter — were by the NCAA committee, this is the draw, and both teams need to play it how it lies.
Along with my fellow writers, I don’t think Seattle University should be too much of a problem for the Wolverines. It’s impossible to easily compare, but I think they stack up like a mid-to-low-level Big Ten team, and Michigan has handled those all season long. If somehow the Redhawks pull off the upset, you might as well write the Wolverines off right then and there, because the uphill battle from that kind of hole they dug themselves into would likely be too tall to ascend.
But, because Michigan is likely to take game one on Friday, it should see itself up against Washington on Saturday in the winner’s bracket. Here’s where things get dicey. Washington has big bats, simple as that. Five of the six players with over 100 at-bats have averages above .300, topping out at .414 for Baylee Klingler. They will be a challenge unlike any Beaubien and Storako have faced this year.
In the circle, Gabbie Plain, a finalist for NCAA Player of the Year, is just as much a monster as Michigan’s two aces — if not more. I think Plain will be the difference-maker in the matchup for Washington, and she’ll be fresh for the Wolverines. Why? Unlike Seattle, which appears to be a formidable opponent for Michigan on Friday, the Huskies get 15-24 Portland State and can likely start one of its weaker pitchers in favor of resting Plain.
So on Saturday, Michigan just won’t have seen someone as good as Plain in a live game all year, and its chronic inconsistency — hitting — will simply fall flat while Washinton’s big bats will be able to find a small amount of success before either Beabien or Storako settle in. I believe the Huskies take this one in a low-scoring, maybe about 3-1, pitchers’ duel.
Then, the Wolverines will have to play yet another game against a losers’ bracket team to advance in the double elimination tournament before facing Washington yet again. Michigan will then have to beat the Huskies not once, but twice, in order to advance beyond the regional. On a long weekend, halfway across the country, playing the sixth-ranked team in the NCAA on their home field, against a fresh Plain and a lineup of seasoned hitters, I just don’t think two in a row is possible for this Michigan roster.
But whoever leaves this regional, I think, loses to Oklahoma in the next round at the Norman Super Regional. I don’t think either Michigan or Washington stand a chance to make it out of there and head to the Women’s College World Series. I think there it comes down to two teams — Oklahoma and UCLA — but unlike my fellow beat-mates, I think the Bruins are the one hoisting the hardware when it’s all said and done.