Romero continues to lead the way with her bat.
So I have grad school stuff to work on, but I don’t want to do that. Consequently, you all get more softball coverage! Hopefully that’s what you wanted…
In any case, with the postponement of today’s game against BGSU, the scheduled home opener, the bulk of the softball team’s non-conference schedule has come to an end. They still have a mid-week match-up against Western Michigan on April 8th as well as the make-up game for today, whenever that might be [update: this will be next Tuesday, March 25], but all the most serious opponents are behind us, and we can take a look at where things stand heading into Big Ten play. (All this comes with the caveat that I have yet to watch the team play, so I’m working off of stats & recaps. I’d love to hear some more comments from those who have gotten the chance to take in a game or two!)
Record, Postseason Outlook
As usual, the team put itself through the wringer, playing in six different tournaments/invitationals/etc., traveling to Florida, California, Louisiana, and Kentucky to take on many of the nation’s best teams. Michigan’s 19-6 record could have been a little better, but not much. The only bad loss was against an unranked and mediocre Houston outfit, and that came in the middle of the Judi Garman Classic where Michigan was facing a murderer’s row of top-ten teams. A little loss of focus is perhaps understandable. All the other losses came against ranked teams, and except for one loss to Louisiana-Lafayette at ULL’s home ballpark, they were all against top-ten teams. Two of those losses came in extra innings, including a heartbreaker in the season opener, when Michigan lost a 4-run lead in the 7th against Florida. When you play teams of this caliber, you’re going to take some losses, but it’s worth it for the wins you do manage and for the experience the players gain.
With the bad out of the way, let’s take a look at the positives from the non-conference slate. The Wolverines have accumulated five wins against ranked teams, including three against top-ten teams (Kentucky, UCLA, and Arizona). The UCLA win is definitely the crown jewel in Michigan’s resume right now, as the Bruins have torched their non-conference slate to the tune of a 26-1 record. After pushing the Bruins to extras before falling 4-1 on March 4th, the Wolverines came back the next day and torched UCLA to the tune of a 9-4 pounding which remains their only loss. Heading into Big Ten play, Michigan finds itself ranked #6 in the nation in the most recent poll. As long as the Maize & Blue stay in the top 16, we’ll have a regional in Ann Arbor, and if we stay in the top 8, we could end up hosting a super-regional as well, should we be fortunate enough to get that far. This is where Michigan wants to be at this point in the season.
From the start of last season, conversations about individual player performances on Michigan’s softball team have begun with one player: Sierra Romero. She has not disappointed this season, leading the team with an absolutely absurd .493 batting average, good for ninth in the nation, with only a couple other major-conference players ahead of her. She has done this despite being walked more than a quarter of the time (24 walks to 67 at-bats), showing great plate discipline, only striking out 9 times thus far. While her six home-runs are a little off last year’s record-setting pace, this is to be expected, as terrified pitchers do everything they can to stay out of her way. At the end of the day, Romero is following up her Big Ten Player of the Year campaign in grand style (she has also improved defensively, with a .015 improvement in fielding percentage over last season).
While the conversation starts with Romero, it certainly does not end there. Eight different Wolverine batters are hitting over .320 (two of those have under 30 at-bats, the other six all have more than 60). Colie Sappingfield has been doing great work in her usual lead-off spot [edit: batting second], betting on-base over 40% of the time and batting just shy of .400. She even managed a home run, which for a pure slap-hitter must have come as quite the surprise! The highest-impact freshman on offense has been Abby Ramirez, hitting .324 in 67 at bats. She could use a little more plate discipline, having struck out 9 times to only 6 walks, but that’s the sort of thing this coaching staff can easily handle. That kind of hitting right out of the gate as a freshman shows a lot of promise. Overall, Michigan boasts the #18 team batting average (.329) in the nation and the #46 scoring offense (5.56 runs per game). Both of these numbers may very well go up as the Wolverines head into a weak Big Ten slate (more on that in a moment).
Unfortunately, Lauren Sweet hasn’t quite been able to match her play from late in the season last year, batting only .224. However, last year she did much worse in the non-conference schedule, and then turned it on once Big Ten play hits. If she makes a similar leap in conference play this year, she could quickly find herself as one of the top offensive threats in the conference. The bigger disappointment has been the pitching of last year’s ace, Sara Driesenga, which has really tailed off from last season. Her ERA currently stands at .319 [edit: 3.19] and she has yet to find her first win on the season. I haven’t heard any injury news (others may know something I don’t), so I’m not sure how to explain it. She has been playing better of late, however, and has found some success in a relief role, notching 3 saves on the season. Hopefully she too will make some improvements in Big Ten play.
Driesenga’s struggles have been offset by the rest of the pitching staff, however. Freshman Megan Betsa has faced a true baptism by fire, having pitched against many of the nation’s elite teams. While she has struggled at times, she has managed a respectable 2.27 ERA with 63 Ks to 23 BBs. The 63 Ks are especially impressive, and she leads the team in that category, despite having pitched more than 25 innings fewer than Wagner. She will certainly be an important piece going forward.
The biggest factor defensively, however, has been the resurgence of southpaw Haylie Wagner. After struggling through injuries last season as losing her role as the ace of the staff, she has reclaimed that spot with a vengeance. There are currently only 20 D-I pitchers with ERAs under 1.00, and Wagner clocks in at #17 in this crowd, currently holding opponents to a stingy .93, more than 1.5 better than she managed last season. She currently boasts a 13-0 record with 8 complete games, and leads the team in almost every pitching category. If she keeps up anything like this level of play, she stands a great chance of reclaiming her Big Ten Pitcher of the Year crown.
Big Ten Outlook
As usual, the Wolverines come into the Big Ten as the favorites to win the conference. Competition may be stiffer this year than usual, however, with Nebraska and Minnesota both joining the Maize & Blue in the top-25. The Huskers & Gophers haven’t taken on as challenging of non-conference slates as Michigan has, but both have notched Ws against at least one ranked team and stand to give Michigan a run for their money in the Big Ten.
Despite these challengers, I expect Michigan to take the crown, if for no other reason than that the schedule sets up much more easily for Michigan than their challengers. A mid-April home series against the Golden Gophers is Michigan’s only test against the top third of the conference, and a road series against Illinois represents the only time Michigan will travel to face a team with a winning record in the non-conference schedule. The Fighting Illini have managed a 14-7 record, but have yet to beat a ranked team. Other than 12-10 Wisconsin, whom the Wolverines get at home to close out the season, the rest of Michigan’s schedule is comprised of teams with losing records, some of them truly dismal.
Without a doubt, the Minnesota series is the key point in the conference slate. If the Wolverines can take care of business against the teams they should beat and take at least 2 out of 3 from the Gophers, the road to a seventh straight Big Ten Championship should be fairly clear. I can’t predict a perfect conference record, because that has never been done in Michigan history, but I have a tough time picking out more than 2 or 3 potential losses.
If that can be managed, the Wolverines will be well-positioned to head into post-season play with plenty of momentum and experience. Weather-permitting, Big Ten play begins at the Wilpon Complex this Friday at 4 PM, as 8-17 Indiana comes to town. I wish I could be there; for those of you in Southeast Michigan, get out and support the team!