For the first time since 2001, the Michigan softball team is leaving its first two tournaments of the season with a record under .500.
The slow start raises many questions for the Wolverines, with one more prominent than the others: Where do they go from here?
The short answer is Baton Rouge, La. But before Michigan leaves Ann Arbor for next weekend’s LSU Invitational, the team must address the questions from this weekend’s 1-3 record against unranked Louisville and North Carolina.
First and foremost, the offense is in flux. After batting in six runs in their win over Louisville, the Wolverines failed to put up more than six combined runs in the subsequent three games, losing all three contests.
That inconsistency isn’t new this season. Last weekend in Tampa, Fla., Michigan tallied three low-scoring affairs, scoring a combined five runs against North Carolina State, Arizona and Florida, before 10-1 and 11-4 blowouts over South Florida and Illinois State, respectively. While talent affects offensive performance, the Wolverines need an offensive kickstart regardless.
“We’re trying to win the game and the only way to win the game is to score more runs than the other team,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “… We need more bases, better cuts, and the kids are working on it.”
Who will deliver that power remains a question going into next week. But statistics point to freshman outfielder Lexie Blair and senior catcher Katie Alexander, who both homered in Michigan’s offensively poor games.
Adding to offensive struggles, multiple probable starters’ poor performances this weekend rocked Michigan’s potential final lineup.
At third base, veteran junior Madison Uden’s inability to perform offensively, followed by senior Mackenzie Nemitz’s success, and Uden's subsequent benching throws her place in the starting lineup into question.
“We just gave up too many free bases, and we gave up five runs in an inning,” Hutchins said. “Kenzie has been somebody who’s come in and given us offense every game. She’s been able to get hits and girls us good energy, and honestly, right now we’re still searching for our final lineup.”
Similarly, after pulling out sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien and freshman right-hander Alex Storako, the likely second pitcher, Hutchins sent a message that no position is locked up at this point in the season. Sophomore right-hander Sarah Schaefer’s performance as a reliever for Beaubien could shake up the pitching rotation.
“Kudos to her. She came in to just get us out of the inning, and she did,” Hutchins said. “It’s tough to come in in a situation like that, in the heart of the order as well.”
After mixed performances in the first two weeks, the Wolverines’ lineup is undoubtedly uncertain, a gap that Hutchins will need to stitch together within the next month.
But even with a need for step-up hitters, a consistent lineup and pitchers' improvement, an even bigger problem from this weekend may riddle the Michigan softball team going forward: its mindset.
“We need to work on our mental game, you know. It’s hard to play this many games, and especially to play the same team twice,” Alexander said. “We have the skills, the talent, we have that. We just need to come together.”
The first two tournaments this season have not been what the Wolverines expected, and after leaving Chapel Hill with an uphill battle to regain dominance, Michigan has to adjust. The question of the week: How will the Wolverines react?