After losing its final regular season series against Minnesota last weekend, the Michigan softball team placed 10th in the Big Ten. Traveling to Champaign, the Wolverines begin their tournament Wednesday by facing off with Penn State. The Daily’s softball beat (Rekha Leonard, Tasmia Jamil, Jonathan Wuchter and Zach Edwards) now predicts the outcome of the Big Ten Tournament.
How far does Michigan go?
It’s no secret that Michigan can’t compete with the top teams in the Big Ten this year. Penn State poses an interesting challenge for the Wolverines, though, as both teams boast a consistent ace pitcher but underwhelming bats to match. Michigan’s dismal last three series were against the very best teams in the conference. On the other hand, the Nittany Lions dropped a game and allowed six runs to Purdue last weekend — a team that failed to even make the tournament. The Wolverines can win if their bats find at least as much success against Penn State as Purdue did.
If Michigan makes it to the quarterfinals, it will face Indiana — a team it has already proven incapable of beating. So how far the Wolverines can go in the tournament only depends on whether or not they can beat Penn State. I think they can, but that’ll be their only win of the tournament.
Jamil: First-Round Exit
Michigan suffered two series sweeps to Indiana and Minnesota, respectively, over the past two weekends. Each series outcome was headlined by the Wolverines’ inability to keep pace with the opposing offense, and I don’t think that inconsistency will change in the tournament. While Michigan has the opportunity to limit Penn State’s offense with sophomore right-hander Lauren Derkowski in the circle, the Nittany Lions have an ace of their own.
Penn State left-hander Bailey Parshall has a 1.46 ERA — second-lowest in the conference. And with graduate center fielder Lexie Blair’s injury status still up in the air, it will be challenging for the Wolverines’ offense to combat her surging arms. I expect it to be a tight matchup but I have a difficult time seeing Michigan’s bats be the necessary difference-maker to get past the first round.
Wuchter: First-Round Exit
For Michigan and Penn State, the scouting report is simple. Both teams boast an excellent ace: Derkowski and Parshall, respectively. And both teams’ bats are among the worst in the conference. But the stat sheet won’t tell you the outcome of this one — because as Michigan coach Bonnie Tholl often says, softball is a game of momentum. The Nittany Lions aren’t necessarily red-hot, but they bring in some confidence from winning their final four Big Ten series. On the other hand, Michigan is an ice-cold 1-8 in its last nine conference games. The Wolverines entered a slump at the worst possible time, and expect that to roll over into a loss on Wednesday.
If any team has no momentum going into the tournament — it’s Michigan. After losing seven straight Big Ten games, the Wolverines are definitely in a slump. That said, Michigan’s first-round game against Penn State is a matchup of similar strengths and weaknesses. The Nittany Lions have a strong pitcher in Parshall, but are evenly matched with the Wolverines’ Derkowski — both boasting an ERA hovering around two. On the other side of the ball, both teams have inconsistent offenses resulting in both teams winning in low scoring affairs.
The first-round game will be a battle of aces with mediocrity at the plate for ultimately what will be another low scoring game. With Tholl’s optimism and preparation, Michigan will pose a strong matchup against the Nittany Lions, but against Indiana in the quarterfinal — a team Michigan has failed to prove it can compete with — the Wolverines will see their demise.
Who wins the Big Ten Tournament?
Minnesota is the most well-rounded team in the Big Ten. Right-hander Autumn Pease will likely win pitcher of the year, and the Golden Gophers have three batters with over 10 home runs on the season. They can win with their pitcher or their power — a deadly combination. Not to mention, they’re riding an 11-game win streak into the tournament.
Assuming all higher seeds win, Minnesota would play Indiana in the semifinal. If anyone can calm the Hoosiers’ bats, it’s Pease. And the Gophers’ batters are perfectly positioned to take full advantage of Indiana’s subpar pitching. A win against Indiana would likely bring on a tough matchup against Northwestern. Once again though, Minnesota appears to be the more talented team in almost every category. Its only downfall may come from its error-prone defense. But so far this season, the Gophers’ immense strengths have been enough to cover up that deficiency.
The Gophers are currently the hottest team in the Big Ten, riding an 11-game win streak. The key to their success has been Big Ten’s best pitcher in Pease, who boasts a 1.31 ERA. Minnesota’s offense can also hold its own ground with power behind its bats, only trailing Indiana in total home runs in the season. The combination of stability from the circle and at the plate makes the Gophers the most balanced team in the conference.
While Northwestern has been consistent throughout the season, its left-hander Danielle Williams — who plays the majority of the game for the Wildcats — has a 2.45 ERA. And Minnesota has the offensive capability to combat Williams’ arm. On the other hand, the Hoosiers, who have the potential to outduel the Gophers’ offense, don’t have the pitching consistency to prevent their bats. Therefore, regardless of the final matchup, I expect Minnesota to have the upper hand on either side of the game and add another Big Ten Championship to its school history.
Let’s not overthink this one. Northwestern has been the best team in the conference for two seasons now. A semifinal exit last season was surely a disappointment — one that the Wildcats rebounded from with a College World Series appearance. So while goals remain lofty for Northwestern, expect the Wildcats to be highly motivated when playing for their first conference tournament title since 2008.
Northwestern doesn’t have anyone playing at the level of Minnesota’s Pease in the circle or Indiana infielder Taryn Kern. And even as a whole, the Wildcats do not boast any of the top offensive, defensive, or pitching units. But this team is just incredibly balanced, and that has produced results. Its only three losses in conference play are a one-run loss to Iowa, a 15-0 loss to an emotionally-driven Michigan team on a ceremonial day and a recent loss to Rutgers. Northwestern is just too dominant to not win this tournament.
The regular season champions, Northwestern, look to be a formidable opponent for any team in the Big Ten Tournament. While the Wildcats are not on a win streak of 11 games like Minnesota, they have proven to be the most consistent team in the Big Ten. Aside from its 15-run loss to Michigan, Northwestern has competed tightly in every game it has played, other than games where it dominated its opponent.
The Wildcats’ consistent pitching proves a multi-day threat for opponents. And alongside a starting lineup that has a collective batting average above .300, Northwestern deserves its top seed entering the tournament. The Wildcats have the easiest path to the championship — beating all possible opponents on their side of the bracket in the regular season besides Maryland — but will face a challenge in either Indiana or the Golden Gophers, their likely championship opponent. But using stellar batting and multi-threat pitching, Northwestern will claim its first Big Ten Tournament Title since 2008.
Leonard: Nebraska beats Northwestern in the semifinal
Jamil: Rutgers beats Ohio State in the first round
Wuchter: Indiana picks up a run-rule win over Minnesota in semifinals
Edwards: Illinois rallies over Wisconsin and Nebraska to the semifinal
Leonard: Taylor Krapf
Jamil: Autumn Pease
Wuchter: Jordyn Rudd
Edwards: Angela Zedak