Going into the weekend, the Michigan softball team was concerned about facing Ohio State and Penn State, the second and third-ranked Big Ten teams, respectively. Both teams’ offenses posed a danger to Michigan’s recently strong pitching (Big Ten-leading 1.46 ERA).
But the top threat to the Wolverines’ Big Ten Championship hopes wasn’t Penn State’s dangerous bats (.308 batting average) or Ohio State’s scary speed on the base paths (46 stolen bases).
Instead, they were blistering winds and 30-degree temperatures.
Notching victories against two of the Big Ten’s better teams would have been crucial for No. 9 Michigan (1-1 Big Ten, 28-6 overall) to stay in the race for the Big Ten title with No. 8 Northwestern (6-1, 31-7).
The Wildcats faced two Big Ten bottom-feeders, Purdue and Indiana, and went 3-0 on the weekend.
But the return of the winter weather caused the cancellation of Michigan’s four scheduled games against Penn State (2-0, 16-12) and Ohio State (4-0, 21-13), and has delayed its Big Ten home opener until April 27, a matchup against Minnesota.
The cancelled games means Michigan will play its shortest regular-season conference schedule in program history. Of their 20 planned Big Ten games, the Wolverines will play no more than 16 this season. Michigan also lost another scheduled non-conference game against Notre Dame at the beginning of March due to rain.
The shorter conference season heightens the importance of each game because the Big Ten championship is determined by conference win percentage.
Though both the Wolverines and Wildcats each have one loss (against each other), Northwestern has five more conference victories and has a stranglehold on the conference win percentage category (.857 to .500) and control of the Big Ten.
But Michigan is not completely out of the race. Though they fell significantly behind, the Wolverines missed out on the “toughest Big Ten weekend,” according to Hutchins, and a potential loss or two may have been weathered out.
And Northwestern has yet to play this tough Penn State-Ohio State back-to-back matchup. A loss to either of those teams next weekend would lower the Wildcats’ win percentage considerably and allow Michigan to become a contender once again.
The Wolverines face Iowa (4-2, 28-15) and Illinois (2-2, 23-14) next weekend.
The past three years, the conference champion has had just two or three Big Ten losses. With such high winning percentages required to win the Big Ten, every loss is magnified. Due to the snow, Michigan may have actually benefited from missing the tough stretch.
But while it may be difficult to determine the extent of the impact of the cancellations, the pressure is definitely on.
And with rain showers and 30-degree temperatures projected for Michigan’s matchup with Iowa next weekend, there is a possibility the weather could rear its ugly ahead again and mess with the top of the Big Ten standings even more.