There were a lot of empty plates early in the season.
In turn, Carol Hutchins switched to emphasizing a simplification of the game so that the No. 17 Michigan softball team could find a way to cover all of its bases.
“(Front-line focus) simplifies the battlefield,” Hutchins said. “… When it’s an exciting, tense game and there’s a lot of emotion going on, they start having too many thoughts in their mind, and that’s not good softball. (You) gotta stay focused on something small.”
To make things simple, the basis of the game essentially breaks down to three things: pitching, batting and the result.
And the Wolverines had concerns with all three.
However, with an ongoing 16-game win streak, the team has found a way to cover all the bases it couldn’t initially.
The main question coming into the season was who was going to replace three-time All-American Megan Betsa, the ace pitcher last year. Upon her graduation, a hole opened up, along with several questions. Would it be former All-American senior right hander Tera Blanco, FloSoftball’s 2017 Hot 100 Rankings’ No. 6 prospect left hander Meghan Beaubien or another pitcher on the deep roster? Were they good enough to replace Betsa?
After the opening weekend tournament, those questions were answered. Throwing a six-inning no-hitter in just her second game — and her first career start — Beaubien all but proved herself as the strikeout pitcher Michigan sought to replace its former star.
And in a Feb. 10 game against South Florida — one that ended with a score differential of one — Blanco was pulled for Beaubien, a move that Hutchins deemed one she thought gave them the best chance to win, solidifying Beaubien’s status as the ace. Currently holding a 0.92 earned-run average, she has not only backed up the trust put in her by the coaching staff but has exceeded expectations — earning three Big Ten Freshman of the Week and Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors thus far.
However, the Wolverines didn’t just find an ace. They found the full house with much-needed depth.
In contrast to the one-two punch it had with Betsa and Blanco, Michigan added two freshman, Beaubien and right hander Sarah Schaefer, into the fold to make it a three-woman rotation between the freshmen and Blanco.
Over the course of the season, Blanco brought her ERA from 2.30 to 1.36, as well as carrying a 1.27 ERA during the 16-game win streak, making her a viable second option. However, as recently as last weekend, Schaefer showed her ability to make her mark on the mound, possessing a 0.00 ERA for her two-game stand, with one match being a five-inning perfect game.
The conflict is no longer who will fill the hole left by Betsa, but who should be getting the innings.
Meanwhile, the void left by graduates wasn’t the issue on offense. The pieces were there — they just weren’t connecting.
Batting has always been a strength of the Wolverines. The year prior, the team knocked in 343 runs on 488 hits with a .325 team batting average. The year before that, 466 runs on 531 hits with a .349 team batting average.
This year, the offense came out struggling only to spark under the conviction of the players to improve.
“It’s a huge success for us that we’re hitting a lot better,” said sophomore infielder Madison Uden. “We may not be producing as much runs as we want to but we’re definitely producing more. And I think we’re just making a lot more solid contact, swinging early in the count.”
Before the win streak, the offense produced a measly 2.75 runs per game, including four shutouts. The inconsistency forced Hutchins to take a new approach. Make it a team effort. Make it simple. Make it fun.
“You know, when you lose a game, you, in a sense, maybe feel uptight, or like under pressure,” said junior catcher Katie Alexander, “like, it has to feel like, ‘I have to do this, I have to win.’ And I just don’t think that was what we were thinking in that game.
“We were thinking, like, ‘Let’s have fun, and be the team that we are.’ And when we are hitting the ball, like, we’re having fun, so that was something we really took to heart.”
Just like that, the individual pieces started to click.
Junior second baseman Faith Canfield, who was a preseason National Player of the Year candidate, had already been the one beacon in the batting lineup. However, since losing to Virginia Tech, she’s upped her game further, hitting four home runs, as well as batting .474.
Her performances saw her named Division 1 NCAA Player of the Week, as well as Big Ten Player of the Week. She led the way to overall improved performances by the Wolverine batters — especially from the veterans of the team. Blanco, who once batted .404, began to return to form as she currently bats .325 with four home runs. Alexander is batting a career-high .302 as well as tying a career-high for home runs with four. Senior utility player Aidan Falk also has four home runs, while hitting .349.
It was evident the team as a whole felt more in tune with one another, choosing to have fun instead of being engulfed by the pressure to perform in line with the standards of the elite program.
And the lack of tension paid off.
Against then-No. 8 Baylor, the team countered the game delay by singing in the rain. The mood of the team was in high spirits, as it went on to record its first weekend sweep, including wins over two ranked foes. What a glorious feeling.
The offensive turnaround is proof of unity. Early in the season, lack of chemistry showed through stranded base runners and untimely outs. Just when one player found their groove, another couldn’t, costing games which the Wolverines should have won.
But winning makes everything better.
However, there was a worry it wasn’t that way for a segment of the season. Through those first 12 games, doubt crept in.
Was this team even worse than last year’s — whose early exit in the postseason was viewed as a disappointment? Was Michigan’s tenth-ranked recruiting class not enough?
The frenzy of criticism was quieted through the most effective method — winning.
When Michigan graduated its star pitcher, it replaced her with talent and much needed depth. When it felt the pressure of failing to meet expectations, it bounced back by winning 16 straight. When the offense just couldn’t click, Michigan found a way to cover all the bases.
Tien Le can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tientrle