Senior catcher Lauren Sweet was standing on second base when freshman designated player Aidan Falk ripped a single through the right side of the infield March 14 in the Michigan softball team’s matchup with Kent State. Sweet rounded third and bolted for home, but as she slid into home, her right foot was trapped under her body at a plainly unnatural angle. The run scored, but the damage was done. The fans at Alumni Field held their collective breath until Sweet was helped off the field in a fireman’s carry.
But Saturday, Sweet was substituted in as a pinch-hitter for the Wolverines in the fifth inning. When she stepped into the batter’s box for the first time since recovering from her injury, the fans roared.
“Being out for a week and a half is pretty tough, and I’ve really been struggling with it,” Sweet said. “(The cheers) were like a spark for me to work even harder to get back as well, it was awesome.”
Michigan faced a disappointing loss on Sunday to go 2-1 against Iowa on the weekend. If Saturday’s brief in-game appearance had been a test of Sweet’s health, she passed. When the starting lineup was announced prior to Sunday’s loss, Sweet’s name was on the list. She was back at her familiar post behind home plate for the first pitch.
“It’s a lot of ups and downs — I think it’s hard to say exactly where I’m at,” Sweet said. “I want to be out there, so I’m going to work as hard as I can to be out there whenever I can.”
It wasn’t obvious at first that she was comfortable being back. Sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa’s first pitch slipped out of Sweet’s glove. It happened again for the second batter. It had been 15 days since Sweet had last experienced live pitching in a game, so maybe a little rust was to be expected.
But by the second inning, Sweet had settled in, comfortable in resuming her long tenure as Michigan’s catcher. Her role is about more than just technical expertise. She’s the watchman for the pitching staff — a source of calm and positivity when tension runs high.
“I expect her to take control of the pitchers, that’s her job,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “I think she’s very good at it, and we’ve needed her back. It’s unfortunate (that) for her first good start back we didn’t get it done.”
The Hawkeyes overcame a four-run Michigan lead by scoring three runs in the sixth and seventh innings to upset the Wolverines. But throughout the final frames, whether it was when sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa was fighting fatigue, or when senior left-hander Haylie Wagner found herself in a bases-loaded jam, Sweet was there to walk out to the circle and steady her pitchers.
“Most of the time it’s just to calm down,” Sweet said. “No matter what happens, I need to be positive, and I need to be giving them all the energy I have. No matter what happens, I’m there for them.”
There was no demand on Sweet to make plays at the plate, no chances to try and gun down an attempted steal. Despite taking the 6-4 loss to Iowa, perhaps it was the perfect scenario for Sweet to ease herself back into her starting role.
Before her injury, Sweet was batting .324 with six home runs and 28 RBI. though resuming that productivity may not come as easily for Sweet as fulfilling her duties as catcher.
“She’s a big bat in our lineup, but I didn’t think her bat looked very good,” Hutchins said. “She’s going to have to work hard this week to swing better.”
But her fans and teammates will still be there to cheer her on when she’s up at bat. Perhaps it’s a poetic twist of fate that now Sweet will be reaping the benefits of a positive approach she champions.