Nick: Hey, guys. How is life treating you this week? Anybody sleep in, run late for anything?
Will: I have a newborn in the house. I never sleep in. Nor sleep, for that matter.
Nick: Wow! Congratulations! Well, not on the sleep, that part sucks.
James: Congrats, Will! My locale has been having some dreary weather, so it has been more difficult than usual to get up in morning.
Will: Thanks. He’s a few months old, so I guess technically he’s not a newborn, but anything for sympathy points.
Nick: True. When is he collecting social security?
Will: He was born after the new year by a few days, so I’m mostly upset about the loss of a tax cut. Anyway, enough about me...
Nick: Yeah, I got no follow-up quip on that one. My tax jokes are lean.
Alright, so - Michigan softball. I’ll be up front, Michigan softball is something I’ve covered before and have grown really invested in. Carol Hutchins runs a great program, she’s like the Nick Saban of college softball, and her teams always churn out amazing players and then replace them with more amazing players.
What do you guys think of how this season has gone, though? There have been a lot of hurdles, to say the least.
James: For a second there I thought you were about to say she’s the Nick Bodanyi of college softball . . .
More seriously, I’ve been satisfied with this season. The team hasn’t been quite as dominant as years past, but I think this team has overcome some challenges - particularly offensively - and that will serve them better than if they had just cruised through the season as Michigan teams have in years past.
Will: Yeah, as James said, this season hasn’t been as smooth. It’s almost like two seasons, with the Wisconsin game serving as a turning point. When Hutchins benched the majority of her starters for lack of offensive production, it was a wake-up call. And a timely one, with them having won eight straight since. Headed into the tourney, that’s ideal timing.
Nick: Agh. I’m slightly frustrated with this storyline. Yes, Hutch benched a number of her starters for that game on April 22nd, but she was trying stuff before then to get this team to improve its focus and intensity - like batting Kelly Christner at 7th for a seven-game stretch - and the reason why that game has served as a turning point is not only because of their improved mental approach, but also because some of those young players were finally able to step into leading roles with the majority of a season under their belt. This team was building up for that turning point all season long.
Will: Sure. But that’s coaching, right? You tweak, you move around, you adjust, and finally something clicks. And putting players on public notice - by benching them en masse - is a pretty strong move.
Nick: Definitely. And I think the loss of Sierra Romero really hurt this team a lot in some ways that people don’t talk about. Sure, she was an amazing hitter, and she did a lot of stuff for this ball club, but she was an intense player too and led this team every day. Harbaugh distilled in softball form, for you football fans. She was awesome. And this young team hasn’t really - at least, it appears to me from the outside - hasn’t had that kind of driving leadership or voice from any of the other ladies. Hutch has had to really push them.
But from watching part of that Rutgers series at the end of the year, you could tell one team was honed in and determined to prove something, and the other team simply was not.
James: Well, I think that speaks to Coach Hutch’s longevity. She’s been around for over 30 years and she has this track record of producing high-quality teams. She knows when to tweak, how to tweak, and she’s been very successful because she’s been able to get the most out of the players on her roster - Sierra Romero or not. And so now I think we’re simply seeing the maestro at work, and it’s paying off at exactly the right time.
Will: Yeah, she’s had several first team All-Big 10 players each of the past several seasons. Year in, year out, she gets the most from her players. And great coaches are intuitive in their timing. She’s inspired a surge in offensive production headed into the postseason. I think Minnesota and the rest of the conference are on notice headed into the weekend.
Nick: Yeah, I think both the hitting and Minnesota were things I wanted to talk about some more. I really like where this lineup is at now - ever since that 4/22 game, Kelly Christner (our most talented hitter, and for a long time was our #3 hitter) is batting leadoff, and Canfield, Falk, and Tera Blanco are the heart of the order. What do you guys think?
James: I think that’s absolutely right. We have some quality hitters on this team, and Christner, Canfield, Falk, and Blanco are leading the way. On the season Christner and Canfield are tops in terms of batting average (.405 and .392 respectively). And while Falk and Blanco don’t hit at quite the same clip (.338/.286), what they do is get on base and slug. Blanco is among tops on the team with a .460 OBP and Falk is third on the team with a .617 SLG%. When you put that together, everyone plays their roles - plays to their strengths - and you have a very effective lineup.
Will: There’s some depth to the batting order, too. Natalie Peters and Abby Ramirez, though not on the same level as Christner (second highest batting percentage in the conference), bring plenty to the plate. Peters spent plenty of time as the leadoff batter this season, batting just above .400. And Ramirez had 20 RBI, which is right up there with the rest of the squad. Point being, there’s plenty of offensive production down the line, and with all the bats getting hot, we’re in a good place headed into the tourney.
Nick: Ramirez and Peters are really similar hitters, they’re good slap hitters with speed who can run the bases. Hutch likes her #9 hitter to be one of the team’s best scorers, and Abby played that role last year. Now she’s #2, and her and Christner get on base a lot. Peters being at #9 really gives Canfield, Falk, and Blanco their opportunities.
Will: There’s no replacement for depth in a batting order.
Nick: Yeah, true. So, the Big Ten Tournament is coming up on Friday and Saturday (bracket here), and Michigan will probably, knock on wood, be facing Minnesota at the end of it. From looking at the schedule and some of the other teams’ stats, I’ve noticed that Hutch likes to schedule some very, very tough non-conference games to challenge our players, and for the most part the Big Ten doesn’t offer that same number of challenges.
I’m actually really hoping we face off against Minnesota and Sara Groenewegen, because these are the type of pitchers we’ll face in the WCWS, and we need the practice. Indiana and Michigan State, the two possible teams we’ll face in the first round, certainly don’t have that kind of talent. Ohio State and Wisconsin, the two most likely opponents in the second round, do have some good pitchers, though.
James: And on the topic of scheduling tough non-conference games, I’ve noticed that Minnesota did not necessarily do that this year. They only played four games against opponents who were ranked at the time the games were played and they went 2-2 in those games. I’d also note that Minnesota was fortunate in their B1G schedule this year as well.
Five of their eight conference series were against teams that finished under .500 in the league and under .500 overall. Notably, they missed playing Michigan and Ohio State who finished 2nd and 3rd in the league this year. Now, don’t get me wrong, at 50-3 Minnesota is a formidable team. But maybe, maybe, that record is a little misrepresentative of their true calibre.
Nick: Huh! Yeah, some stats after Big Ten play are inflated. That’s one of the advantages that softball-heavy conferences have on us in the tournament. They’ll have seen some stiff competition throughout the months of March and April.
Will: That said, Minnesota has clicked off 22 straight wins. The mark of great teams is consistency. I think Michigan can take them, but they’re facing an elite pitcher and a deep team. Not being the pessimist. If anything, I’m excited for a great title game (assuming we don’t look past MSU and other possible early matchups).
Nick: Yeah, I remember last year, this team wasn’t used to close games, everything came so easily to them, and I knew they needed some tense, difficult wins during the regional and super regional matchups. They got them, but boy that wasn’t fun to watch. This team is going to be in the fire again, and we’ll have to see who steps up on that roster.
Hopefully this team stepping up offensively is a great sign. This is like previous years’ teams - they ride and die with the offense ultimately. They’re 29-0-1 when they score at least five runs, and just 12-10 when they don’t.
So, we haven’t really talked about the pitchers yet. What do you want to see from Megan Betsa and Tera Blanco?
James: Fortunately both pitchers have been very good this year. Betsa, the Senior, has led the way with an ERA that’s in the basement and her characteristic sky-high strikeout rate. She’s averaging 12.51 Ks per seven innings, and has tallied 370 Ks at this point - her third straight year of surpassing the 300 K threshold. She’s an extremely potent pitcher who likes to overpower her opponents.
Nick: Another fun fact on Betsa: she has a .373 allowed slugging percentage this year, so players are having a really hard time getting big hits off of her.
James: Blanco really has the opposite mindset in the circle, but she has been just as effective this year. She pitches more to contact and her K/7 ration reflects that (5.40). She still has an ERA south of 2.00 and a WHIP of one-ish (1.16). She also has a low walk rate of 0.35/inning, as compared to Betsa’s walk rate of 0.39/inning. So just as effective, just as controlled, but different style.
Will: Agreed, James. Blanco is not going to fan a lot of batters, but she’s got control and she’s emerged throughout the season as a top-notch pitcher (18-3 record). There’s not a lot of drop off when she takes the mound the day after Betsa. In fact, the two combined for about 50 straight innings of scoreless softball heading into the second week of April. And the fact that Blanco can hit - like, really hit (43 RBIs, this season) - speaks to her being a complete softball player.
But soon, one of them will have to face Groenwegen… and, yes, I have to still look up her name to spell it correctly.
Nick: I think you missed an ‘e.’ :) In fact, I think her name has 17 e’s.
Will: O...M...G… as the kids say. I’m leaving it. Transparency rules at Maize n Brew.
James: Yeah, I’ve got nothing to follow that.
Nick: Well, then I guess we’ve hit on all our bases. Predictions on how this team will do this year? Do you think they reach the WCWS?
Will the Wolverines be one of the eight to reach the WCWS this year?
This poll is closed
Will: If the bats stay hot, they make it. And I think they do. A universal principle in sports is timing, and the Wolverines are hot, right now. I like them to win the conference and go pretty deep into the postseason.
James: I agree. Hutch has this team clicking on all cylinders at exactly the right time. I like them to run through the BTT and to make a push into the later rounds of the WCWS.
Nick: And for those of you who aren’t as familiar with softball postseason play, there’ll be the Big Ten Tournament - hopefully with a showdown between #17 Michigan vs. #2 Minnesota at the end of it - and then the Regionals, which is usually very easy for us, and then the Super Regionals, which whittles it down to eight teams who enter the WCWS and go through a weird series of games with each other where an immediate loss puts you in the losers’ bracket and you have to win all your remaining games, and I think two losses is always enough to knock you out. Once that is down to two teams left standing, they will play a three-game series for the title.
Like you, I am hoping we make the WCWS. Just like last year, I think we’ll need to get challenged to show we can handle those superior pitchers we’ll face later on. It’ll be like growing up on the fly, quickly and under pressure, and that doesn’t always go off without a hitch. But we shall see.
Michigan softball faces the winner of Michigan State-Indiana on Friday at 4:30 PM on BTN. The winner of that game goes to the Big Ten semifinal on Saturday at 3:30, with the final showdown happening Saturday night at 6:00. The Regionals are next weekend.