EVANSTON — Senior right-hander Alex Storako doesn’t give up many runs.
She carries a 1.57 ERA thus far this season. Prior to two outings against No. 9 Northwestern, she had limited opponents to 15 earned runs in 95.1 innings pitched. But when teams score against her, there’s a common thread:
Runs against Storako constantly come via the long ball.
As was the case in the No. 23 Michigan softball team’s loss to the Wildcats in Sunday’s resumption of Saturday’s postponed game. Storako gave up three home runs, orchestrating the Wolverines’ collapse after they took an early lead.
Storako entered the game in the third inning, relieving freshman right-hander Lauren Derkowski — who earned the start 23 hours prior. She allowed one run on a double by infielder Nikki Cuchran, but was otherwise solid early on.
In the fourth inning, though, Northwestern took Storako deep for the first time on the day. Infielder Hannah Cady got a hold of one of the first pitches Storako threw for a deep drive to left field and a leadoff home run.
Giving up that home run was just the continuation of a growing trend for Storako. She has given up at least one long ball in each game she has pitched in against Big Ten competition this season. In her past six outings, she has given up nine home runs, compared to only one home run through her first 14 appearances.
Then, Storako found herself in an even tougher position.
Two batters after the solo shot, infielder Grace Nieto hit a comebacker to Storako that ricocheted off of her throwing arm. Storako fielded the ball, but sailed the throw over junior first baseman Lauren Esman’s head, clutching her arm after the play. And though she stayed in the game and escaped the inning without further damage, it was clear she was hurt.
That injury would come back to bite her just a few innings later. In the sixth, she sailed another throw past Esman, extending the inning and giving the Wildcats momentum.
Northwestern capitalized quickly, in uncanny fashion.
With runners on first and second, outfielder Rachel Lewis blasted a line drive that eked over the left field fence. In the next at-bat, catcher Jordyn Rudd bombed a ball for a solo shot. For the second game in a row, Storako gave up back-to-back home runs to Lewis and Rudd to erase Michigan’s lead.
And for the second game in a row, Storako’s outing — and Michigan’s chance for victory — was debilitated by Storako’s recent inability to prevent the long ball.
Storako was clearly somewhat injured, and that may have shaken her up. And as a riseball pitcher, she constantly pounds the ball up in the strike zone. Usually, it results in very high strikeout numbers.
Against an undeniably great hitting team like the Wildcats, though, it follows that so many pitches high in the strike zone could quickly turn into a few home runs if they stay over the plate too long.
But as long as Storako keeps giving up home runs to opposing batters, it’ll be much harder for the Wolverines to win games. And in the midst of a skid where the team has focused so much on confidence, it can’t be good for Storako’s to constantly see her pitches fly over the fence.
“Storako is one of the best pitchers I’ve ever coached,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “She just needs to believe it.”