Junior right-hander Alex Storako wiped the ball off as she glanced toward the dugout. With two outs and an 0-2 count, all she had to do was get Nebraska’s Caitlynn Neal, a pitcher herself, to bite on the next throw.
Consulting her pitch card as she stepped on the mound, Storako took a deep, steadying breath and fired a rise ball toward the mitt of junior catcher Hannah Carson. The ball comfortably nestled into Carson’s glove after Neal chopped at air and trotted back to her teammates as the Michigan softball team celebrated a 2-0 victory.
Neal’s game-ending at-bat was one of 19 strikeouts for Storako in Thursday’s doubleheader. She tied a program record for strikeouts in a game, set by Jennie Ritter against Oklahoma in 2006. Storako isn’t the only Michigan pitcher to challenge that mark this season, however. Senior Meghan Beaubien also matched the record in the season-opener against Purdue.
Those performances raise questions whether the almost 15-year-old mark will be broken — whether it even can be broken. Striking out more than a dozen bats is a great performance for most college pitchers, let alone handling all but two at the plate. Striking out 20 batters isn’t part of the game plan against any team.
“I’m not necessarily focused on breaking any records,” Storako said. “I’m just going out there to play. I was just lucky enough … to strike out 19 people in a single game.”
While Michigan’s pitchers aren’t chasing the record, their recent successes still beg the question if a new title-holder will be crowned soon. With the dueling aces of Beaubien and Storako, it seems like nearly every game presents the opportunity.
Neither pitcher leaves much for Michigan’s fielders. Storako leads the nation in strikeouts per seven innings with 14.3 and Beaubien is close behind, tied for fifth at 13.2. To put that into perspective, the closest Big Ten pitcher is Illinois’ Sydney Sickels, who checks in at 33rd with 10.
But beyond those high averages, there’s a lot of work to be done on the mental side of the ball. Part of that means sticking to Michigan coach Carol Hutchins’s one-pitch mentality. No matter the situation, no matter the score, every pitch means the same. While that philosophy is often applied to batters, it carries the same weight for the pitchers.
“(Storako and Beaubien are) most effective when they’re just sticking with their pitch-to-pitch process,” Michigan assistant coach Bonnie Tholl said. “And I am certain they had no idea how many strikeouts they were recording.
“ … I’m certain they had no idea that there was a record on the line and they were even above 13 or 14 strikeouts. And that’s going to be the key.”
Developing technical skills also contributes to building off the success. Small adjustments can mean the difference between a pitcher putting out a batter or a batter putting one over the fence.
Beaubien and Storako will have plenty of chances to make these adjustments as the season progresses. Without a defined third pitcher on the roster, the workload falls on those two in most games.
Against teams struggling on offense, Michigan’s pitchers could find themselves approaching Ritter’s record again. Schools like Penn State and Michigan State could find themselves on the wrong side of history if Michigan’s hurlers catch fire.
Nothing is guaranteed, however. If striking out 20 batters was easy, it would’ve been done long ago. The ability for two pitchers to measure up to the record says a lot about their talent, but it still might not be enough.
However, having two pitchers that can reach program ceilings bodes well for Michigan, especially when they’re struggling on offense. Breaking records or not, the Wolverines know they might have one of the nation’s best one-two punches.
This season, Michigan has an opportunity to watch a pair of talented pitchers etch their names into history. While they aren’t looking for it, Storako and Beaubien could very well find their names in the record books.
Right now, though, they’re just focused on the next game up. Taking things throw by throw, strike by strike could preserve the mentality that’s allowed the co-aces to come so close.
“First thing is not think about it,” Tholl said.
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