It may be the weather or just the familiarity of the Midwest, but the Michigan softball team is hitting its stride.
The 20th-ranked Wolverines (5-1 Big Ten, 24-10 overall) struggled offensively in many games during nonconference play, dropping one-run contests to national powerhouses and winning low-scoring games with dominant pitching.
But once the squad returned home and began its Big Ten schedule, the bats heated up and runs started pouring in.
After a dominating 12-2 victory over Eastern Michigan in Michigan’s home opener, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins was pleased with the huge jump in offensive production.
“(After the game), we talked about getting bases and having good, long at-bats,” Hutchins said. “Make the pitcher throw it over the plate and see the ball longer. Once one or two people did that, it becomes contagious. It takes the pressure off.
“I also told them that this is a team effort. We keep having individuals who keep trying to do it all and be the one. We don’t need a hero, we need a team.”
So far that mindset has worked for the Wolverines. Since returning home, Michigan has scored more than eight runs per game, going 7-1 during the stretch. They notched 12 runs in contests against the Eagles, Penn State and Bowling Green. In comparison, the Wolverines only tallied 12 runs once in the nonconference schedule and averaged four runs per game.
Michigan did face noteworthy non-conference foes, though, during warm-weather play. The Wolverines defeated four of the eight ranked opponents they faced, including then-No. 22 Kentucky, which knocked Michigan out of the NCAA Super Regional last year.
Though the squad’s offense may not have been up to par during the nonconference schedule, it has gotten back to where Michigan wants it.
“In the beginning of (an) inning, Bree (Evans’) part is to get on, she gets on,” said senior first baseman Amanda Chidester of the team’s performance against Eastern Michigan. “Lyndsay (Doyle’s) part, move her over or get on — (she) did both. And it just continually happened throughout the entire game. We had base runners on, and people hit (them) in. It was perfect.”
BOTTOMS UP: Take a look at Michigan’s batting order. You’ll see familiar names — Bree Evans, Amanda Chidester, Ashley Lane — names you’d recognize as the offensive leaders of the Wolverines.
A little further down you’d see names such as Sara Driesenga, Lauren Sweet and Nicole Sappingfield.
While Evans, Chidester and Lane are the typical producers for the Wolverines offense, in recent games, Sweet and Sappingfield have stepped up.
Against Penn State in the team’s Big Ten opening series, Sweet and Sappingfield went a combined 11-for-14 with five RBIs, and Sappingfield had a similar performance against Bowling Green on March 28, including a walk-off grand slam.
And again, the bottom of the order stepped up in the series against Indiana last weekend. Sappingfield went 3-for-7 in the two wins and Amy Knapp added a 2-for-3 performance in the first game of the series. Though the weekend may have been highlighted by Chidester’s and Lane’s home runs, the ability of the bottom of the order to get on base is integral for the offense.
“The bottom of the order is just as important as the rest of the order,” Hutchins said after the series sweep of Penn State on March 25. “We have to make sure that they understand that. Our championship team’s motto was, ‘When the bottom of the order comes through, that is when championships are won.’ When we can hit through the order, it makes us a very dangerous team.”
CHIDDY BANG: While her teammates took control of the offense against Penn State, Chidester stepped back into her normal role this weekend against the Hoosiers.
Hutchins mentioned how Chidester’s leadership was apparent on and off the field in the series in Bloomington, and Doyle noted how Chidester’s offensive performance on Sunday helped the squad clinch the series.
Her weekend was highlighted by a solo home run in Sunday’s game, tacking on a run to help the Wolverines win, 7-2. The first baseman went 6-for-9 in the series, boosting her .333 average, which leads the starters.
Though she hasn’t yet matched her production from last season, when she hit .423, Chidester’s Big Ten performances are a good sign for the future.