Players were crossing the plate like pedestrians at a turnstile in a New York subway station.
Eleven different players had hits and eight had tallied RBIs — including the first career hit for freshman catcher Abby Skvarce and first RBIs for freshman shortstop Madison Uden.
After five innings Sunday, the game against Penn State came to a merciful ending, with a crooked number on the scoreboard (17) and a ubiquitous sense of relief permeating the team.
But Michigan coach Carol Hutchins still kept her guard up. She wasn’t ready to declare the “tightness” that she believed to have been plaguing the offense all year a thing of the past.
“We’ll see,” Hutchins said. “Certainly in a game like that, when you jump on them and you’re up by five, you’re not tight. And when you’re not tight, you do play better… you’re going to face a lot of good pitchers. Good pitching in softball means you have to persevere until you get some timely hits.”
The offensive renaissance was much-needed for a team that has struggled mightily at times this season, but the blowout and sweep against a team it has traditionally dominated — with this being the 28th straight victory over the Nittany Lions — didn’t mar the inconsistencies that have plagued the Michigan offense.
The win didn’t change one troubling fact: the Wolverines’ offense has struggled against the top-quality pitching it has faced this season.
Michigan has faced eight starting pitchers this season with an earned-run average below 2.00. In those games, the team has averaged just 1.625 runs, including three shutouts. The problem is made more apparent by the Wolverines’ current 2-6-1 record against ranked opponents.
On Tuesday against an overmatched Central Michigan team, Chippewa pitcher Rachael Knapp — who has a 1.66 ERA — held Michigan’s offense down. Knapp surrendered just two runs on the day, keeping the game competitive.
Hutchins thinks the offensive disparity stems from more than just physical difficulties.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who can really swing bats, we have some kids that can swing well, and when we’re on we’re all on — we’re very contagious,” Hutchins said.
“And when we’re off we’re all off. So in my mind (the struggles) are from the neck up. We need to get a little bit tougher, we need to get feisty and fight. We’re going to have to fight for what we want, and to be a good offense they’re going to have to fight to be a good offense.”
To some extent, these struggles are to be expected; good pitchers are harder to score against. But they also shed some light on the room for improvement that still exists. For a team that will need to beat good pitching in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments if it hopes to accomplish its goals, its success will largely be predicated on improvement in that area.
No. 6 Minnesota — the Wolverines’ prime competition in the uncharacteristically competitive Big Ten — carries one of the best pitchers in the country in right-hander Sara Groenewegen. The senior boasts a 0.57 ERA in her 85 innings this season.
No. 22 Wisconsin will also be a potential foe in the Big Ten this season. They have a duo of starters with ERAs below 1.50.
No. 2 Florida — the team that has served as the primary thorn in Michigan’s post-season side — has a tandem of dominant pitchers, including Kelly Barnhill, who already shut the Wolverine lineup down in a 2-1 defeat earlier this season.
The list could, and will, go on.
The Michigan softball team has its anchor atop the rotation — senior Megan Betsa will always be the backbone of this team. But if it continues to struggle against quality pitching, Michigan will have troubles when it matters most.