In many ways, Saturday was more the same for the Michigan softball team.
For the 27th consecutive game, the nineteenth-ranked Wolverines (21-7-1, 2-0) defeated Penn State (12-16, 0-2) — a streak that dates back to 2007.
In her sixth straight start, junior right-hander Tera Blanco surrendered less than three runs to earn another confidence-boosting victory after moving into the rotation permanently at the start of the season.
At the plate, sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield continued her scorching weekend, notching a home run and a two-RBI triple following a multi-hit effort Friday.
After splitting times between positions last season, Canfield is batting .360 with five homers and 20 RBI in 2017, catching the eyes of both her teammates and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.
“She’s improved so much since last season,” junior designated player Amanda Vargas said. “It just pumps me up to watch her”
Added Hutchins: “She’s certainly been solid for us. You have to give credit where credit is due: to Faith.”
But Canfield has not been leading the offense for the entire season.
That was senior center fielder Kelly Christner, who was moved down from the third spot in the order to the seventh Saturday. And continuing a brutal stretch for the 2015 All-Big Ten first team selection, Christner was held hitless for the second straight day against the Nittany Lions with a flyout and a walk.
“Christner hasn’t had an extra-base hit and has only one RBI in the last ten games,” Hutchins said. “It was time to take a look at somebody else.”
Vargas emerged as that sombody else, but she herself was surprised with the promotion after spending most of the season pitch-hitting.
Any pressure of hitting third wasn’t apparent in Vargas’ swings, though, as she notched a double, single and sacrifice fly Saturday.
“Vargas, who has done a nice job in her pinch roles for us, gave us a spark in the three-hole,” Hutchins said. “We’ve really been looking for that spark.”
In the absence of production from Christner, Vargas and Canfield provided ample run support for Blanco in the circle, who managed to escape from jams at the beginning of the game — the most dangerous of which came in the second inning.
Down 3-0, Penn State looked primed to cut into the Wolverine lead with the bases loaded and the middle of its order up to bat. As Blanco did throughout the day, however, she forced a groundout to end the inning and keep the Nittany Lions off the board.
But her second shutout of the season was partially driven by Hutchins, who was visibly upset with her starter even after Blanco induced that groundout.
“I told Tera to not pitch afraid,” Hutchins said. “I challenged to attack the pitch the way she does with no batter in there. Throw her pitches to beat them, not to not let them hit. Tentative doesn’t win.”
And just as the lineup change did, Hutchins’ words worked.
Though Blanco walked three and hit one Penn State batter in the first two innings, her more aggressive approach led to a 1-2-3 frame in the fourth and uneventful fifth.
“I realized that I just needed to throw strikes, and my defense did a great job behind me,” Blanco said.
If Blanco can sustain that attacking mindset and if Vargas and Canfield can persist on their tears, the Wolverines will be in strong position to continue its seven-game home win streak.