Feb. 19. The Michigan softball team — trailing Florida Atlantic 1-0 heading into the fourth inning — needed a spark. Sophomore Rebekah Milian stepped up to the plate with two outs and runners on second and third. She laced a run-scoring base hit to start a five-run rally and launch Michigan to a 12-3 win.
A month and a day later, it was junior Stephanie Bercaw’s turn to spark the Wolverines. In the second inning against then-No. 1 Arizona, Bercaw broke open the scoring with a three-run homer. Michigan went on to win 6-2.
While clutch hits might warrant a starting position, Bercaw and Milian rotate because of the solid lineup that No. 1 Michigan (3-1 Big Ten, 35-2 overall) brings to every game.
When Milian starts, she plays in leftfield, moving senior Michelle Teschler to rightfield. But when Bercaw starts, she patrols rightfield and Teschler stays in leftfield.
“In general, we pretty much rotated them,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “There’s been several games where we felt one might hit pitching better than the other.”
With Bercaw and Milian, the Wolverines get two contrasting styles of hitting.
Bercaw brings speed to the team and causes havoc on the base paths. While regulated to pinch running in her first two seasons with the Wolverines, Bercaw has taken advantage of her chance to play — even if it is on a rotated basis. Already this season, she has smashed two homers and is batting .339, well above her career average of .200.
But after never starting a game in prior seasons, Bercaw has adjusted well to playing in the field on a more consistent basis, already starting 21 games this season.
“It’s definitely exciting to play in the field,” Bercaw said. “Playing in a game is different than playing in practice. We try to practice at game speed and game intensity, but there’s just something different about games.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Milian started in 49 games and both of the Women’s College World Series games the Wolverines played in last year. But this season, she has started off slowly while Bercaw’s improvement has led Hutchins to give both of them a chance to play.
When Milian — a slap-hitter — is up to bat, her batting stance looks like the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki. As the pitcher releases the ball to home plate, Milian shuffles forward in the batter’s box and tries to “slap” it into the ground. Then, using her speed and forward momentum, she can reach first base faster than if she had stayed back in the batter’s box.
“My role when I’m up to bat is just to make things happen and then try to beat out the throw or advance the runners,” Milian said. “I’m pretty quick on the bases; I just try to make things happen.”
Milian has started the season batting .213. She has started 18 games and is working on an improved approach to the plate.
“With my swing, I’m looking to alter it,” Milian said. “I was watching the Arizona slappers in the California tournament, and I’ve been working on running through the ball. Before I was hitting and then running — now I’m trying to stay through to the pitcher.”
In the series last weekend against Iowa and Illinois, Bercaw started all four games and hit the ball well — connecting on a wind-aided home run Sunday.
Although the rotation might have caused a rift between two other players on a different team, Bercaw and Milian take a positive attitude to the diamond every game no matter who is starting that day.
“I always prepare like I’m going to play, and I just keep a good attitude and stay positive,” Milian said. “If I play, I play my best, and, if I don’t play, then I’ll be fully behind whoever’s playing and be ready to go in and pinch run or pinch hit.”
According to Bercaw, the friendly competition can only help them improve.
“We’re all friends,” Bercaw said. “We compete to make each other better, but it’s not like we’re not friends or buddies. It’s more of a ‘You push me and I’ll push you and we’ll get better that way’ kind of attitude.”