On softball: Reeling Michigan in need of improvement

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 14, 2013

The Michigan softball team blazed through regular-season conference play, garnering a 20-2 record and earning a sixth-straight Big Ten championship. But when the postseason began, the Wolverines experienced a harsh reality: It’s a whole new ballgame.

In the postseason, every mistake is amplified. In the postseason, every team plays with a chip on its shoulder. And in the postseason, a tournament run can end after one bad inning.

The postseason isn’t for just anyone. Only the best succeed.

But Michigan — by far the league’s best offense — looked downright ordinary during the Big Ten Tournament in Lincoln, Neb. last weekend. After they terrorized Ohio State to the tune of 33 runs in three games in early April, the Wolverines squeaked by the Buckeyes, 3-2, in the conference quarterfinals.

The following afternoon, Michigan managed to plate just three more runners as it was blasted by Wisconsin, 9-3. The Wolverines had also lost their first series of the season just two weekends before against Nebraska.

Now, they have to regroup and take care of business at home in the NCAA Regional against tough opponents if they want their season to continue.

As the nation’s No. 8 seed, Michigan has certainly earned its national recognition. During non-conference play in February and March, the Wolverines beat the likes of No. 11 Arizona State, No. 12 Washington and No. 16 Texas A&M. They then began their Big Ten slate by winning their first 16 games to extend a streak of consecutive triumphs to 22. Now, Michigan will host a regional at Alumni Field, where it is a perfect 16-0.

But maybe the Wolverines have lost some of their edge after facing nine ranked opponents before their Big Ten slate. Michigan entered April as the only conference team in the Top 25 and didn’t play another ranked foe until April 26-28 at Nebraska. The Wolverines were then eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament by No. 24 Wisconsin, dropping Michigan’s record against ranked opponents to 1-3 since league competition began.

After terrorizing pitchers all season to the tune of 12 home runs, 35 runs batted in and a .452 average, Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Year Sierra Romero might take a lot of the blame for the Wolverines’ recent struggles. The Murrieta, Calif. native’s 32-game streak of reaching base was snapped when she went 0-for-4 against Ohio State in the conference quarterfinals, and she followed with an identical line against the Badgers the following afternoon. Romero also went 0-for-7 in the regular-season series against Nebraska when she failed to deliver in pressure situations, a facet of her game where she had no previous issues.

But don’t point to the freshman as the only reason for Michigan’s sudden return to mortality. Haylie Wagner, last season’s Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year, returned from an apparent back injury 19 games into the season and couldn’t reproduce the same dominance as in 2012. The sophomore allows a full run per seven innings more than she did last year, while batters average over 30 points better — and Wagner has pitched 20 fewer complete games (albeit in 14 fewer games started).

Even after Wagner’s return from injury, sophomore Sara Driesenga has taken the bulk of the workload in the circle and delivered. The right-handed ace boasts a 26-6 record with a 1.81 earned-run average and has better than a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But Driesenga’s production in the box has dipped sharply, and she bats .275 after hitting at a .340 clip a season ago.

Behind the pitchers, Michigan’s defense has been a source of frustration. The Wolverines’ .958 fielding percentage is in the bottom half of the Big Ten, and their 66 errors are worse than all but two teams in the conference.

And in the postseason, those performances aren't enough to contend.

But led by veteran coach Carol Hutchins, star-studded Michigan has the tools and experience necessary to make a deep postseason run. They have home-field advantage if they advance to the Super Regionals, where a three-game series will determine a berth in the Women’s College World Series. But that’s a big “if,” and the Wolverines have to put all of those tools together quickly in order to challenge for the program’s second national title.