Sports

Michigan’s rocky season as seen in two innings at Michigan State


On Wednesday at Michigan State, two consecutive innings epitomized the turbulent nature of the Michigan softball team’s season thus far.

The third inning showcased the Wolverines’ greatest flaws that have cost them numerous close contests: inconsistent hitting and stranding runners on base. The fourth inning flipped the script, displaying Michigan’s offensive firepower — the driving force behind five dominant run-rule victories on the season.

The Wolverines showed they are capable of taking over games, but also how they continuously let games slip out of reach.

Starting the third inning with a 1-0 deficit, Michigan looked to its stars to produce. But they didn’t. Rather, they exposed the Wolverines’ weaknesses.

Sophomore left fielder Ellie Sieler and graduate center fielder Lexie Blair — who hold the two highest batting averages on the team — both gave up easy pop up outs to the infield. No hits, no base runners and two quick outs from Michigan’s best batters did not bode well for the success of the inning.

But as they often do, the Wolverines started to claw their way back. With a single, a Spartan throwing error and a hit by pitch, Michigan loaded the bases. All the Wolverines needed was one more hit to tack a run on the scoreboard. Instead, a groundout ended the inning, leaving three runners stranded and no score to show for the efforts.

“I think that when you’re not scoring runs they feel the weight of the world on every at bat,” Michigan coach Bonnie Tholl said after a loss to Illinois April 7. “The way you get the weight of the world off is you swing. You have to just swing your way out of it. Until we mature to that point, nothing is going to change with our run production.”

That lack of run production is exactly what has held the Wolverines back all season. Nine of Michigan’s 15 losses came within three-run games. Just a few more hits, well-placed balls and advanced runners might’ve made the difference — all things the Wolverines have shown they can sporadically achieve.

The fourth inning against Michigan State, for instance, flashed that potential. After a leadoff single, senior third baseman Audrey LeClair flexed her power with an RBI triple. Michigan went on to plate two more runs in the inning to take a 3-2 lead. Although the Wolverines still ended the inning with a runner stranded on third, three runs in three hits was exactly the efficient hitting they needed.

“The fact that Audrey got to third was key for us because we ended up scoring on a ball hit in the infield,” Tholl said Wednesday. “I felt we would have scored anyways in that inning, but the fact that we continued to push on it was key.”

Aggressive baserunning and power hits have been key each time Michigan has been able to create consistent offense this season. In four of their five run-rule wins, the Wolverines successfully stole at least one base, each time putting a runner in position to score. And in all five of those dominant wins, Michigan hit at least a double or better, often firing off a triple or home run to seal the victory.

With this spark-based offense running the show, the Wolverines rely heavily on momentum shifting in their favor.

“When you feel good and make plays on defense, it bleeds into your offense and vice versa,” Tholl said. “We try to coach them to compartmentalize things, but that doesn’t necessarily occur.”

For much of the season, Michigan has struggled to compartmentalize. The Wolverines have allowed mistakes to derail them and big plays to catapult them to decisive wins. Against Michigan State, however, the gaffes were mostly confined to the beginning of the game, and the big plays in the fourth inning carried Michigan to victory.

To find continued success, Michigan hopes to create more innings like the latter.

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