For the Michigan softball team, the struggle against ranked opponents continues.
After an 11-2 run-rule victory against Evansville and a 5-1 win over Kent State, the 17th-ranked Wolverines (14-7-1) ended their weekend at the John Cropp Classic in Lexington, Ky., with a disappointing 5-1 loss to No. 19 Kentucky. It left Michigan at 2-6-1 against ranked opponents this season, and its total losses already equal the same number as the entirety of last year.
On Saturday against Evansville, the Wolverines jumped out to an early six-run lead in the first inning, capped off by a two-run double to deep center field by catcher Katie Alexander, and never looked back. Adding to nine hits, Michigan capitalized on free bases, including six walks, a hit-by-pitch and three Purple Aces’ errors. And after a four-run fourth by the Wolverines, the run rule came into effect after only five innings, ending the contest.
Senior right-hander Megan Betsa (6-5) continued her command in the circle, allowing just two runs on three hits and one walk. Her 12 strikeouts on the day gave her a seventh game this season with 10 or more.
In Sunday morning’s matchup against Kent State, it was all Tera Blanco for Michigan. The junior right-hander (8-2) starred on both sides of the ball, highlighted by pitching a two-hit complete game. Blanco didn’t allow a walk and fanned a career-high 13 Golden Eagles, including five of the game’s final six batters.
After a sluggish start to the season at the plate, Blanco showed promise of turning it around with a hit and three RBI. A three- and two-run inning in the bottom of the fourth and fifth, respectively, swiftly responded to Kent State’s unearned run in the top of the fourth. Both Michigan scoring sprees began with leadoff doubles from junior first baseman Aidan Falk.
A major point stressed during practice over the past week was to be more relaxed and “do less” while playing — implemented to respond to high-stress situations — and that slowly began to show for the Wolverines, but needs to still be improved.
“I think it’s a work in progress,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “We had moments of it. It started a little tight the first day, we didn’t really hit the ball well, (but) we had some hits and bases that we earned. It got better midway through the Kent State game. I thought we were making moves in the right direction and I didn’t think we were very relaxed until later in the game until the game got tight.”
In the second game of the twin bill against Kentucky, the Wolverines continued a season-long plague of not capitalizing on opportunities with runners in scoring position. They left seven on base, failing to score with the bases loaded in the first and fifth innings.
In the first and third innings, the Wildcats exploited a usually sure-handed Michigan defense, opening up a quick 2-0 lead thanks to a passed ball and wild pitch. A three-run Kentucky home run off Betsa in the sixth extended the lead to 5-1, putting the game out of reach.
“(Kentucky was) tough when they needed to be and they got key hits when they needed to,” Hutchins said. “But again, the same story, we gave up too many free bases and too many opportunities. When we had the bases loaded, we came up short. So give Kentucky the credit, they were the toughest team today.
“We need to be tough under pressure, whether it’s on the mound or at the plate. … We’re not getting consistency in those two areas and that’s not acceptable and not going to get us what we want.”
With the possibility of not facing a ranked team again until late in the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines need to iron out kinks soon, notably a lack of offensive production and a surplus of free bases given up. But ranked opponents or not, Hutchins believes the issue that has been tormenting her team of recent is a simple one.
“We’re not playing the game of softball,” Hutchins said. “Just play the game of softball, not who do you play, not who’s ranked, not who’s supposed to win, you’re just supposed to play the game, and we are very inconsistent in that category.”