Alex Storako took a deep breath, gripped the ball in her glove and began her windup. With a pair of runners aboard and two outs in the inning, the freshman right-hander’s pitch froze Toledo’s Brianna Robeson — Storako’s fourth strikeout of the inning.
The four-strikeout inning is a rarity. On Wednesday, Storako achieved the feat during the No. 23 Michigan softball team’s 24-3 victory over the Rockets (10-19), an onslaught that marked the Wolverines’ (24-10) 12th consecutive win.
Storako’s own blunder made the four-strikeout oddity possible. In the first at-bat of the second inning, Toledo’s Kaitlyn Bergman uncorked a vicious swing on a ball well outside of the strike zone with two strikes in the count. Bergman whiffed on the wild pitch, but the ball bounced away from senior catcher Katie Alexander, allowing Bergman to reach base on the dropped third strike rule. Storako received credit for the strikeout, but no out was recorded.
After plunking the next batter with a fastball, Storako appeared to be on the verge of unraveling.
The last time Storako found herself in a situation involving two baserunners, she surrendered a three-run home run to Rutgers on Saturday. That wasn’t her only rough patch during the Wolverines’ series in Piscataway, as she failed to escape the first inning of the previous game. Following a double, walk and single by the Scarlet Knights to begin the game, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins called upon sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien to clean up Storako’s mess.
Storako recorded just one out in that start — the shortest outing of her young college career.
“I’d like to see Storako go to the next level,” Hutchins said after Saturday. “That’s keeping her composure and keeping her spin on pitches while she starts muscling it up and trying harder when the game gets intense. It’s time to grow. We learn and get better in moments and stress, so I’d like to see her get a little bit better.”
During Wednesday’s start, Storako showed flashes of next-level dominance. She hurled three no-hit innings while posting seven strikeouts and zero walks on just 47 pitches. Storako’s pristine spin carried her throughout the afternoon until Hutchins substituted her out of the game along with the rest of the starting lineup.
“(Storako) finished strong,” Hutchins said. “We need her to keep getting better and learn how to be intense every pitch without trying too hard. She’s a spin, moving pitcher and those pitchers do, if anybody, have trouble with the command. That’s not unusual.”
By the time Storako’s day was done, the Wolverines’ 24-run lead meant the rest of the game was merely a formality.
For Storako, the three strong innings were a much-needed boost before Michigan’s Big Ten home stretch. The team’s final 17 games are all against conference opponents, and having multiple reliable starting pitchers will be a key. Beaubien has already thrown over half of the team’s innings so far this season, so Storako’s steady progression is a major plus.
“It’s really awesome to see her in the mindset of attacking things,” said senior second baseman Faith Canfield. “Having to be behind Meghan (Beaubien) is a hard role, and I think she can get complacent there and I don’t think she has. Having this sense of being able to come out and attack it is really going to help her in the long run.”
Added freshman catcher Hannah Carson: “I know this whole week she’s been working on her pitches and she’s been pretty disciplined. So it was really nice to see her come out and power through those hitters.”
At this point, Storako’s numbers reflect a solid overall freshman campaign. After Wednesday’s dominant outing, her ERA is down to 2.11. She’s amassed 110 strikeouts across 89.2 innings, and opponents have posted a batting average of just .176 against her.
Storako’s only shortcomings have come in the form of walks and long balls. So far, she’s served up 12 home runs and issued 34 walks. The rest of the staff has allowed a combined five homers and 26 walks.
If Storako can pound the strike zone and surrender fewer home runs, recording four strikeouts in an inning will be the least of her accomplishments.
“Four strikeouts?” Hutchins joked. “I’d just as soon have three and get off the field.”