On softball: Your move, Michigan

Ruby Wallau/Daily
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By Jake Lourim, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 7, 2014

Lyndsay Doyle stood in centerfield with her shoulders slumped and a nervous look for the first time in weeks. The senior had just muffed a base hit through the hole, and though she had an outfielder on both sides of her and a dozen more teammates in the dugout, it must have felt like she was all alone.

She cracked her knuckles and got back into her stance to get ready for the next pitch with last-place Illinois in the middle of a 10-2 bashing.

The first two-thirds of Michigan’s season went like a boxing match between a heavyweight and a high schooler with no gloves. The Wolverines dominated every opponent, knocking them out before they even got into the ring.

That night, they got punched. And now, two weeks later, it’s their turn to respond.

It’s a fairly new predicament for Michigan: Doyle hadn’t had to recover from an error because she hadn’t made an error. The pitchers hadn’t had to pitch in close games because there hadn’t been any close games. No one had needed a clutch seventh-inning hit because they hadn’t played many seventh innings, instead winning by mercy rule.

So much is hanging in the balance at this point in the season — so much to gain, so much to lose.

The Wolverines are behind five Pac-12 teams, three SEC teams and Florida State in the coaches poll. All of those teams have been tested by tough competition for the past two months.

In the past three weeks, Michigan has gotten a couple punches back and not known what to do with them. The Wolverines watched a dropped third strike roll into the opposing dugout last Friday. The pitchers threw balls in the dirt for junior catcher Lauren Sweet to dig up. The table setters didn’t set the table, and the power hitters didn’t hit.

“Bad time of the year to be having bad softball,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.

Yes, it is. But every time the Wolverines lose the first game of the series, they fight back with a win in the next game. It’s clear the talent is there. If Michigan turns it around this weekend, the Big Ten Tournament could start to look like the first half of the Big Ten season. If it doesn’t, the Wolverines might be coming home Friday night.

So how do they punch back on a more consistent basis?

Is it trying harder? No.

Sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero said Friday that Michigan was coming up empty offensively because the hitters were trying too hard. Romero has to deal with that more than anyone — when opponents pitch around her, she can’t lunge at the first pitch close to the zone.

Is it getting afraid? Not usually.

Hutchins said Friday her team was too afraid of losing and too consumed by outcomes. With the pressure to win mounting, Michigan struggled more and more.

“It was a hard practice (last Thursday) because for some reason we’re not playing good softball right now, not hustling,” she said. “And it’s all of them. Not just a couple of them, it’s all of them. Fear paralyzes you. It’s so funny because when you’re afraid of losing, you don’t lose, you get killed. But yeah, we played really afraid to lose. It’s the worst quality a team can have.”

Last Friday was something new entirely. Hutchins said her team would have to hit rock-bottom to rebuild its mindset and move forward, and Friday’s 9-3 loss — punctuated by Wisconsin’s seventh-inning grand slam — was pretty close.

So, to use Hutchins’ words, she “shocked” them. She lit into them after the game about their flaws. She lamented the team’s poor leadership, calling it “horrible.” She acknowledged the team’s mindset — “individuals don’t win, this is not track.”

And to that the team responded with a 10-2 win the next day, though Hutchins said she would have been happy with any outcome the way Michigan played.

“The only thing I care about is our approach and mentality,” Hutchins said. “I don’t care about the game. I don’t care about the outcome. I want a team that fights and plays hard. Watching balls roll into the dugout and not picking it up and throwing it to first, not once, not twice, but three times, using your glove to swat it to home plate, I’ve never taught that play. I want to see us play ball.”

Playing ball is certain. The rest is not — it all depends on how Michigan responds.