What to watch for: Michigan softball vs. Minnesota

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 17, 2014

It’s been 41 days since the Michigan softball team lost a game — or even came close to it.

A 1-0 win over Ohio State notwithstanding, the third-ranked Wolverines have obliterated their opponents since their last defeat March 7 to Houston.

Riding a 20-game win streak, Michigan hasn’t even seen a ranked opponent since the day its unbeaten run started, a 3-0 win over then-No. 7 Arizona.

All that could come to an end this weekend when No. 12 Minnesota comes to Ann Arbor for what will be the Wolverines’ (9-0 Big Ten, 34-6 overall) last serious obstacle to winning a seventh straight Big Ten title.

The Golden Gophers (10-3, 32-6) enter the series in second place in the Big Ten and look to spoil Michigan’s undefeated season in conference play.

Here’s what to watch for as the Wolverines try to protect home field and push their winning streak to 23 games:

Minnesota’s pocket aces: When Michigan is in the batter’s box, it will be staring down some of the best pitching it has faced all year.

Minnesota right-hander Sara Moulton ranks second in the conference in earned run average with a mark of 1.68 — and is the only non-Wolverine in the top four. But Moulton is coming off her worst performance of the season, in which she allowed 17 hits and all 13 runs in a 13-9 loss to Northwestern.

Outside of that performance, Moulton has been stifling. She’s struck out 188 batters this season in 149.2 innings and doesn’t shy away from throwing a fastball in high-pressure situations.

Still, the Wolverines boast the highest-ranked offense Moulton has faced this year. They’ve posted eight runs or more in all but two of their conference games this season, and 14 of their last 18 wins have been by way of the mercy rule.

Moulton, who boasts 13 shutouts on the year, should at least slow down that production at the plate.

If she falters, Minnesota will turn to freshman pitcher Sara Groenewegen, who boasts an 11-0 record and a 2.35 ERA.

Michigan’s Sierras at the plate: Most of Michigan’s success at the plate this year has come when Sierra — Romero or Lawrence — is batting.

Sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero leads the nation with a .519 batting average, and walks more than once per game on average. That adds up to an on-base percentage of .651, also good for first in the country.

Romero, who was recently listed among the 25 finalists for National Player of the Year, knocked in five RBI and hit her 11th home run of the season Wednesday, and will look to continue her dominance against the Golden Gophers’ strong pitching staff.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins raves about Romero’s presence and patience at the plate — a true compliment from one of softball’s most legendary figures. The threat of Romero’s power is enough for multiple teams to have intentionally walked her to load the bases this season.

When they do, it usually leads to a big at-bat for sophomore outfielder Sierra Lawrence. Michigan’s fifth hitter has already surpassed her RBI tally last season with 45 — she had 38 in 2013. Lawrence also has five home runs, and is hitting a startling .600 with the bases loaded.

If Minnesota can get around both Sierras, something no team in the conference has done successfully to date, they’ll put themselves in a good position to steal a game from the Wolverines.

Pitching Carousel: Lately, Hutchins has gone to the bullpen late in games despite a comfortable lead.

Against Michigan State last weekend, she pulled freshman right-hander Megan Betsa for the seventh inning in favor of junior right-hander Sara Driesenga even though Michigan led by 14.

Hutchins said she had decided to sub in Driesenga one frame prior, when the lead was just four — the Wolverines posted 10 runs in the top of the seventh — but the move would have still been surprising given that Betsa hadn’t allowed a run.

While Betsa and Hutchins both said the freshman looked off her game and had been using too many pitches, Hutchins said the move was partly to get Driesenga used to coming into a game in the late innings.

Hutchins repeated her strategy Wednesday, bringing in Driesenga to close out the last two frames of an 11-0 win against the Chippewas.

That preparation should pay dividends for Driesenga and Michigan in the postseason, when games aren’t so lopsided and the bullpen can make or break a season.

With a much higher level of competition coming from Minnesota this weekend, those types of high-pressure situations may well be in store for Driesenga and company.