After sweeping its series with Wisconsin last weekend, the No. 23 Michigan softball team snuck into a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten, securing an opening-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Traveling to East Lansing, the Wolverines begin their tournament Thursday by facing the winner of Wednesday’s bout between Maryland and Michigan State. The Daily’s softball beat predicts the outcome of the Big Ten Tournament.
How far does Michigan go?
Joey Goodsir: Semifinals
The question mark of this Michigan softball team was whether enough of its many pieces would contribute at the same time for sustainable success. In Madison, the Wolverines finally broke through in their final regular season series with a big exclamation point.
It is completely reasonable to view this as peaking when it’s needed the most, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolverines pushed this momentum into a standout Big Ten Championship run this weekend. The erratic nature of their larger body of work is hard to get past, however, and it pushes me to view this past weekend as too little, too late. I just can’t trust Michigan under the unforgiving pressure of postseason play right now.
Expect the Wolverines to show who they are at their best against Maryland or Michigan State on Thursday, but also plan for Northwestern’s left-hander Danielle Williams to bring that train to an abrupt halt.
Charlie Pappalardo: Semifinals:
This past weekend, Michigan played by far the best softball it has all season, and this makes it really tempting for me to say that I think the Wolverines will go on a tear and win this tournament. But there’s a few things holding me back: inconsistency and Northwestern.
Until just this past weekend, the Wolverines had failed to sweep another opponent in a three-game series. There always seemed to be just one aspect of their game that would falter — seemingly at random — and it’d cost them games. I know that Michigan is on a five-game win streak, but streaks haven’t been something that the Wolverines have been able to maintain this season. I just don’t think I see that changing, especially when their second opponent is No. 11 Northwestern. The Wildcats like to hit home runs, and senior righty Alex Storako’s only flaw is that she gives them up. It’ll be a close matchup, but I see Northwestern coming out on top.
Noah Kingsley: Semifinals:
Michigan is the hottest team in the Big Ten right now, riding win streaks of five games and six straight series. The offense is hitting better through the entire lineup than it has all year. The pitching staff has increased depth with strong recent performances from its freshman arms. All the cards are on the table for a deep run for the Wolverines.
But in just its second game, Michigan will likely run into a brick wall in the form of Northwestern. The Wildcats rank in the top three of the conference in most major batting categories, and they pair that with one of the best arms in the country in Williams. As much as I think the Wolverines could take a series from Northwestern right now, they’ve gotten off to slow starts in multiple series this year. One early misstep against the Wildcats will likely end their conference title hopes.
For that reason, I expect Michigan to defeat a less-threatening opponent in Maryland or Michigan State, then promptly fall in a tight matchup to Northwestern.
Joshua Messe: Big Ten Championship runner-up
Michigan has looked like an entirely different softball team in the month of May. In the last four games, the Wolverines have scored a whopping 37 runs. Senior outfielder-turned-first-baseman Lexie Blair is fully back and ready to contribute, and it feels like everything is falling into place for a tournament run.
Expect Michigan to make a statement in the first round of the quarterfinals against either Maryland or Michigan State.
The Wolverines’ semifinal matchup will more than likely be Northwestern. The Wildcats beat Michigan in its regular season series handily and look like the team to beat. I still think Northwestern is the more complete team, but the Wolverines will surprise them and advance. Why? I think momentum and confidence are absolutely critical features of this matchup. In their first series, Michigan was timid in the batter’s box. Players often took multiple pitches at the beginning of at bats, falling behind in the count and not attacking pitches.
Since then, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has made aggression with the bats a priority, and it has paid off. While Williams certainly is a threatening obstacle, teams like Minnesota have neutralized her as of late. An early scoring run will force a pitching change, and although outfielder Rachel Lewis will make her mark offensively, it won’t quite be enough.
Their unlikely tournament run stops with Nebraska though. The Cornhuskers swept Michigan in Ann Arbor during the regular season, and will be heading into the tournament with the most potent offense in the conference. I think their bats will continue their dominance against the Wolverines, taking the game — and the tournament — in convincing fashion.
Who wins the Big Ten Tournament?
The Big Ten has seen an uncharacteristic amount of depth this season, and the relatively wide possibility of outcomes this weekend is an exciting reflection of that for its fans.
That being said, I don’t see the highly-anticipated first meeting of its top two contenders — Northwestern and Nebraska — being spoiled. And as for the game itself, it will match the hype.
The Wildcats’ success will ultimately be subject to the stamina of their ace, and last weekend’s flameout against Minnesota is not something to overlook. While Michigan’s bats can be erratic enough for Northwestern to escape, the Cornhuskers’ knack for making hard contact with high-scoring results will prove troublesome to a well-worked pitcher on her second day of sudden death. Nebraska will be Big Ten Tournament Champions for the first time in program history.
The Wildcats have only lost four games in Big Ten play this season, and in all four of them they’ve allowed exactly eight runs. Is it possible that this is a cherry-picked statistic that means nothing? Maybe. But I think it demonstrates that in order for Northwestern to lose, its pitching has to collapse.
I don’t see that happening.
The Wildcats have the Big Ten’s best pitcher in Williams with her 1.49 ERA and boast several explosive batters including Rachel Lewis who has a .500 OBP and 20 home runs. They have won every series except for their last. Some think this means they’re slumping at the wrong time, but I think that discounts the dominance they displayed at every other point in the season. I’ve thought the Wildcats were the best in the Big Ten since March, and I’m not gonna second guess them now.
For the first time in the conference season, there’s reason to doubt the Wildcats.
To start, Northwestern gets arguably the toughest early-round draw despite holding the top seed. In their first matchup, the Wildcats will face either Minnesota or Wisconsin. The Golden Gophers just took two out of three from Northwestern and are playing their best softball of the season, while Wisconsin is a scrappy team with a solid ace in Maddie Schwartz and an explosive lineup. If the Wildcats manage to make it past those teams, they’ll run into extremely-hot Michigan, one of three Big Ten teams to defeat them this season. Meanwhile, Williams is struggling by her standards, allowing three or more runs in four of her last six starts.
But Northwestern is the most talented and most consistent team in the Big Ten. When it counts in the postseason, I expect Williams to be at the top of her game, and the rest of the Wildcats to follow suit en route to their third Big Ten Tournament championship in program history.
While Nebraska has struggled a bit with consistency throughout the season, I think the Huskers will peak at the right time.
They drew a great quarterfinal matchup with the winner of Penn State and Indiana, and I don’t see them falling to Illinois. That just leaves the other side of the bracket.
If Northwestern is their final opponent, Williams will have already carried the Wildcats through a tough semi finals matchup. I think Nebraska will do enough to take the win against a tired Williams, outpacing the Northwestern bats in the process.
If it is Michigan or another team on the opposite side of the bracket, I think their road is a little simpler. The Huskers have shown their ability to make consistent hard contact even against the best aces in the conference, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. Look for Nebraska to take home their first Big Ten Tournament championship in school history.
Pappalardo: Ohio State beats Nebraska in the semis.
Kingsley: Not to one-up you Charlie, but Penn State beats Nebraska in the quarterfinals.
Messe: Michigan State beats Maryland in the first round.
Goodsir: Wisconsin beats Minnesota in the first round.
Player of the Tournament
Pappalardo: Danielle Williams, Northwestern pitcher
Kingsley: Rachel Lewis, Northwestern outfielder
Messe: Olivia Ferrell, Nebraska pitcher
Joey Goodsir: Billie Andrews, Nebraska infielder