The bases were loaded with one out in the bottom of the first inning, and the sold-out crowd of nearly 2,500 at Alumni Field started to get loud, brimming with anticipation.
After a devastating 13-12 loss to Northwestern the day before, the Michigan softball team and its faithful were eager to erase their minds of the nightmarish memories.
But if signs foreshadow the future, the start of the game did not bode well for the Wolverines. Already down 2-0 after a two-run shot in the top of the first, Michigan needed a spark.
First baseman Tera Blanco stepped into the batter’s box. Standing upright with her bat wielded over her right shoulder, Blanco glanced at the pitcher, then put her head down. She knew exactly what she was going to do.
Waiting patiently for the right pitch, she worked the count to 2-2. When she finally found the one she wanted, she didn’t hold back. Swinging with purpose and intensity, Blanco launched a rocket of a ball deep to left field. Almost climbing over the wall for her first career grand slam, the ball instead bounced off, falling to the warning track. Blanco settled for a game-tying, two-run double that restored life to Alumni Field.
A classic case of deja vu presented itself in the next inning. Bases loaded, one out, Blanco at the plate. Same stance, same look, but one crucial difference. This time, when bat hit ball, there was no doubt. Blanco crushed her first career grand slam so far that by the time it landed, it had traveled to a completely different ballpark. It ended up in the outfield of Ray Fisher Stadium, home of the Michigan baseball team, which happened to be playing simultaneously on the other side of Wilpon Complex.
The game had just begun, but with a career-high six RBI through two innings, Blanco had effectively ended it.
The next day, she took it a step further and ended the game literally. In the bottom of the sixth, after the Wolverines had already scored four runs to narrow the run-rule margin to one, Blanco took her spot in the batter’s box. With a runner on first base — the game-winning run— the crowd responded in ecstatic fashion.
Settling in the plate, Blanco wasn’t fazed by the moment.
“I find it not as pressure but more motivation because we can end this game early,” Blanco said. “You just swing the bat basically. I’m not nervous. … I’m looking for anything close to the plate, anything I can drive.”
She gave herself ample time to find a hittable pitch. When she found the one she wanted, she did what she had done all weekend — hit the ball deep. She launched an RBI double to right center that brought the runner all the way home.
The Wolverines had won their Big Ten opening weekend series against Northwestern, in no small part due to the play of Blanco.
In the midst of a breakout sophomore campaign, Blanco has become a crucial piece of Michigan’s successful start to the season. With a .446 batting average, 34 hits and 36 RBI, her offensive performance is surpassed only by senior second baseman Sierra Romero. Her ability to keep the momentum going from the top of the order makes her a capable No. 5 hitter.
“It’s why she’s there,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “If she wasn’t hitting for average the way she’s been hitting and hitting for RBI the way she’s been hitting, she wouldn’t be there – I’d have to put someone else in – but she’s earned her right.”
As evidenced by her performances against Northwestern, her propensity for showing up in key moments has been a great asset to the Wolverines. Bases-loaded situations tend to create a sense of anxiety in hitters that causes them to lose their focus. For Blanco, it has the opposite effect.
“You really have nothing to lose in those situations,” Blanco said. “You just need to trust what you’ve been working on. … Simplifying (the game), trying to get a good pitch, not a perfect pitch, is the reason why I’m having success.”
By avoiding overthinking, taking what the pitcher gives her and having confidence in her abilities, Blanco has improved her play by leaps and bounds from her freshman season. As the third option in the pitching rotation as well, the most opportune way Blanco could continue to enhance her game would be to apply the lessons she has learned at the plate to the circle.
“Tera’s a very savvy ballplayer, a very savvy hitter and a very savvy pitcher,” Hutchins said. “I have high hopes for Tera Blanco.”