Going into the fourth inning of Saturday’s game, the Michigan softball team held an 8-0 lead over Northwestern.
For college softball teams around the country, eight is the magic number — it’s the amount of runs needed to end a game after the fifth inning as part of softball’s eight-run mercy rule.
But then, something rare occurred. The Wildcats clawed back into the game to force a full seven inning — just the third time for the Wolverines since the beginning of Big Ten play more than three weeks ago. But after holding off Northwestern’s comeback attempt, Michigan trotted out again the next day, whipping the Wildcats into submission with a 15-0 victory that was finalized in the top of the fifth.
It’s something Michigan has done time and time again this season.
For most, including the players, the eight-run rule has been a blessing.
“That’s not frustrating at all — we want to be done,” senior third baseman Maggie Viefhaus said on April 11th after the team’s weekend series against Minnesota, in which both games ended in early Wolverine victories. “We are never going to give up, we are going to keep hitting and keep scoring runs until that game is over. And if it’s over early, good.”
During Michigan’s current 12-game winning streak, the Wolverines have ended games in the fifth inning a total of eight times. The potent combination of dominant pitching and timely hitting has allowed the team to finish games early in six of its nine conference games.
In Michigan’s matchup against Central Michigan last Wednesday, the Wolverines went into the fifth up just 2-0 and six shy of reaching the magic eight run lead. Following a quick scoring barrage, senior Molly Bausher smacked a hit into center field, driving two runs across and effectively sealing the game.
“I looked at the scoreboard and was like, ‘It’s the fifth inning. If we score six runs here, the game will be over, and that would be sweet,’ ” Bausher said after the game. “We did, and I didn’t even expect that to happen but it happened.”
Bausher conceded that the team was at least in part motivated to end games early because it leaves players more time for other things.
“You got school, finals,” she joked.
Though a number of the advantages are obvious, the rule certainly has its detractors — and one needs to look no further than Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.
“I’m one of the advocates to have it removed or changed to a 15-run limit,” Hutchins said. “In what other sport do you stop playing because you’re ahead? Eight runs isn’t out of reach. You lose the opportunity to give some younger kids playing time. I don’t think it’s good for softball, and I don’t think it’s good for the season-ticket holders that have to rush out to the field before the game is stopped.”
In the 15-run win against Northwestern on Sunday, Hutchins was able to switch up the defensive rotation a bit and allow those who don’t normally play to get some experience. Freshman Ashley Lane also saw a rare plate appearance in the fourth inning, and though she struck out swinging, on a team with six seniors as everyday starters, any time in the spotlight can be valuable. And without a mercy rule, that time would grow.
“It’s a rule that was put in place in the 1970s when I played, when the average pitcher had a 0.2 ERA and games were being won 1-0,” Hutchins said. “Back then if a team got up by eight runs then there was no way there would be a comeback. That’s not the case anymore.”