Michigan’s softball team couldn’t have asked for a tougher four-game stretch to open its Big Ten season – or for that matter, its first four home games of the year.
The 13th-ranked Wolverines (21-6) host Penn State (12-11) today at 3 p.m. in the first of a two-game, two-day series. They will then play a doubleheader against Ohio State (27-5) at Alumni Field on Sunday beginning at noon.
What makes these two matchups so difficult can be seen from last year’s results. In Michigan’s final game against the Nittany Lions and in its only two games against Ohio State, the Wolverines were 3-0, but won all three games by a total of just four runs.
“The entire Big Ten is really good this year, everyone is pretty even,” Michigan assistant coach Jennifer Brundage said. “Every Big Ten game is going to be a tough battle. And it’s just going to be who gets the clutch hits at the right times and whose defense really comes through.”
Penn State, which has had to rely on its pitching a great deal this season, looks to have its best chance to get its second win in school history over the Wolverines, who have won 31 of the 32 contests ever played between the schools.
Penn State is led by its pitching staff, which has performed much better than the individual records show. The Nittany Lions’ Marisa Hanson is just 6-4 but has an ERA of 0.45 with 51 strikeouts. Tina Skelly is 0-5 but has allowed just three more runs than Hanson has. Penn State has not been able to score runs, as its batting average of .267 and its 85 runs are about 30 points and 40 runs less, respectively, than what Michigan has produced offensively. If Penn State is to win, it will need all the help it can get to stop Michigan from scoring, as it is unlikely the Nittany Lions will have much success against Michigan’s aces, Marissa Young and Nicole Motycka. The two hurlers have combined to hold opponents to just a .187 batting average this season.
“We’re working on being aggressive but also making sure that we’re hitting good, hittable pitches,” Brundage said. “Hopefully, what we’ve been working on in practice will carry over into the games. Both teams have some good pitchers with some very impressive statistics.”
No. 25 Ohio State, unlike the Nittany Lions, has had production from all aspects of its lineup this year, and propelled itself into the top 25 this week for the first time all season. The Buckeyes also return the core of last year’s lineup in pitcher Katie Chain, catcher Stacy Roth and pitcher/first baseman Wendy Allen – all of whom have earned Big Ten Player or Pitcher of the Week honors in the past two weeks. Ohio State also comes in with wins in 18 of its past 20 games and has already set the school record for home runs with 31 before the halfway mark of the season.
The Wolverines can have a little sigh of relief as Alumni Field’s fences in right and left field are 10 feet deeper than those at Ohio State’s Buckeye Field.
Brundage said that she only expects the Wolverines’ pitching staff to do what it’s done all season to prevent an offensive explosion by Ohio State.
“We just want them to hit their spots, mix up their pitches and keep the teams off balance by changing speeds,” Brundage said. “For Nicole, we’re expecting her to make them hit the ball on the ground, and Marissa will make people swing and miss.”