In the bottom of the fourth inning in Tuesday’s game against Central Michigan, Alex Storako found herself in a jam.
The freshman right-hander had been pitching well all game — only surrendering two hits — and, with the No. 23 Michigan softball team (20-10) up by eight, it looked like Storako was about to complete the second shutout of her college career. That was put into question when a walk and fielding error put the Wolverines in a tough spot: two outs and bases loaded for the Chippewas.
When the next batter approached the plate, Storako’s first two pitches came in outside the batter’s box, putting Michigan two balls behind the count. As Storako geared up for her next pitch, she faced the possibility of a bases-loaded walk.
She has been in situations like these before. In most of these instances, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has opted to switch to the team’s ace, sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien.
But not this time.
“I walked to the mound and I said, ‘This is good. It’s time for you to do your part, which is to shut this down. That’s what we need from you,’ ” Hutchins said.
Storako took a breath and let the ball fly from her hand. The batter swung and missed — strike one. The same thing happened on the next pitch — strike two. On the third pitch, the Central Michigan batter made contact with the ball, but it was quickly fielded by junior third baseman Madison Uden, ending the inning and allowing Storako to escape unscathed.
Three consecutive strikeouts in the next inning later, Storako ended the game in an 8-0 run rule.
Five solid innings represent an improvement for the freshman pitcher, who has struggled to remain consistent in the later innings of games. But Hutchins wants more.
“We need more than four innings from her,” Hutchins said. “We need her to have the same intensity and the same command of her pitches in the fifth inning, in the sixth inning, in the seventh inning, as she has in the first and the second and the third. Those are steps we’re striving for.”
Storako has been making steady improvements in this area, averaging just over three innings pitched for her first 10 games in the circle and just over five in the eight games since. Her increased endurance has manifested itself in her pitching statistics — Storako has sacrificed fewer bases on balls and hits in recent games.
None of these improvements were lost on the Central Michigan coaching staff, who saw Storako pitch in the fall when Beaubien was out with an injured shoulder.
“(Central Michigan coach Margo Jonker) texted us after the game and said ‘You’ve really done a great job with (Storako),’” Hutchins said. “She’s gotten better and better and now she simply has to command the game. Command her zone. Command the game. A lot of it is just learning how to manage the intensity of the game. Because it is intense.”
On the other hand, Storako claims that that intensity is just par for the course. Even in a bases-loaded scenario, she tries to follow her same routine on every single pitch: get the sign, step on, take a breath, throw.
“The game doesn’t get harder as you get to college,” Storako said. “The competition just gets better. Just being the best you at every pitch is going to make you successful.”