- Terra Molengraff/Daily
By Colleen Thomas, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 29, 2012
The Michigan softball team is slowly falling apart.
After a strong start to their Big Ten schedule, the 22nd-ranked Wolverines have cooled off.
They began the conference season by sweeping Penn State and Michigan State and dropping just one game to Indiana. But since classes ended on April 17, the squad has lost its series to Minnesota and Illinois.
On Sunday, the Wolverines lost the rubber game to the Fighting Illini in a 2-0 decision after beating them 2-1 in the first game of the doubleheader. They also lost a 5-1 game in extra innings on Saturday after holding off Illinois’ offense for a full seven innings.
Michigan is starting to falter late this season and it’s time to take a look at the areas that have been struggling as of late — highlighted by the weekend performance against Illinois.
The Wolverines have been connecting on pitches several times in games — they tallied a total of 16 hits over the three games this weekend — but haven’t been consistent across the board.
Michigan’s power hitters, senior first baseman Amanda Chidester and junior second baseman Ashley Lane, haven’t produced as well as they did last year. Lane went 0-for-5 against Illinois and hasn’t recorded a hit since April 22. Chidester’s batting average is about 70 points lower than last year’s .432 average, due in part to a 3-for-10 performance this weekend.
The rest of the lineup hasn’t helped much, either. Freshman pitcher Sara Driesenga seemed to be hitting her stride at the plate after earning a permanent spot in the lineup as the designated player, boosting her average to .380. But in the past six games, she’s gone 5-for-16.
But sophomore Nicole Sappingfield has stepped up recently, and her performance earned her the number-two spot in the lineup. Her batting average has recently broken .300, good for third best on the team, and has been one of the most consistent hitters for the Wolverines all season. But against Illinois, she went 2-for-12, though Sappingfield did record Michigan’s only RBI on Saturday.
In comparison to the recent struggles on offense, the Wolverines tallied a season-high 13 hits in a game against Penn State on March 25 and have averaged almost eight hits per game over the course of the season.
RUNNERS LEFT ON BASE
Though the bats may be making contact, the runs aren’t pouring in.
Despite a six-hit game against Illinois on Saturday, the Wolverines managed just one run.
Recently, the squad has left quite a few runners on base. Michigan stranded a total of 23 runners against Illinois and left 18 on base against Minnesota — runners which could’ve easily turned into tallies on the scoreboard.
In Saturday’s game against the Fighting Illini, the Wolverines had a couple of chances early to put runs on the board, but failed to do so. In the second inning, two walks put runners on first and second with no outs, and a sacrifice bunt by junior shortstop Amy Knapp advanced the runners to second and third.
But two consecutive outs — a strikeout and a ground out — stranded two on base and ended any chance of scoring.
In the third inning, Michigan loaded the bases with one out and again, the Wolverines couldn’t convert.
Michigan also had that problem earlier in the season when it traveled to Louisville. The Wolverines left seven runners on base in both losses that weekend, to the then-16th-ranked Cardinals and St. Louis.
Though stranding runners is an obvious problem to a faltering Michigan offense, Hutchins doesn’t believe that runners left on base is the problem.
“We have to have quality at bats whether there is a runner on base or not,” Hutchins said after the Red and Black Tournament in March. “The game doesn’t know there are runners on base. … We need to have some quality at bats and make better contact whether there (are) runners on base or not.”
Michigan hasn’t had difficulty fielding, but sometimes errors can be costly. And against Illinois this weekend, errors hurt the Wolverines.
The squad combined for five errors over the weekend — not a significant amount — but the errors came at unfortunate times.
A fielding error in the second inning of Sunday’s second game allowed an Illinois runner to reach first. The Fighting Illini proceeded to load the bases with no outs, but a throw to freshman catcher Lauren Sweet by Lane caught the runner out at home. Michigan did allow one run that inning, and the error helped get the Fighting Illini offense rolling. This was enough for Illinois to win the game.
Though errors are a normal part of the game, Evans knows it’s not the biggest issue.
“We’re going to have some errors in the game,” Evans said. “But the hitters have to back it up. We can’t dwell over little errors.”