No. 17 Michigan softball looks to rely on pitching depth

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

When they should have been involved in organized practices at Oosterbaan Fieldhouse, Michigan’s softball players instead had to get creative. Some threw on snow-covered streets over parked cars, while pitchers practiced in their basements and garages.

Michigan’s athletic department-wide COVID-19 two-week pause that began in late January shut down all sports on campus, but teams preparing for their spring seasons, like softball, could not sit around and do nothing. Equipment was dropped off at their homes, and they made the best of what they had.

Carol Hutchins enters her 37th season as Michigan's softball coach.

The 17th-ranked Wolverines, which had their season cut short last season after 23 games because of the pandemic, open their 44-game, Big Ten-only season this weekend with six games in three days — a doubleheader each day — in Leesburg, Florida, starting Friday. They play Purdue, Iowa and Illinois this weekend and Nebraska and Wisconsin in Leesburg the following weekend. Their home-series opener is against Michigan State on April 2-4, but fans are not permitted to attend.

“They realized unideal conditions can work in their favor if you frame it that way,” Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins, entering her 37th season, said this week during a video conference.

“I think they made the best of it, and that will come up many a time in a team huddle. You know what? Things aren’t ideal. We always like to be ahead in the game, but I bet we’re gonna be behind. We’re gonna need to not be ideal and just fight and do whatever it takes to get what we want.”

Michigan’s top pitchers, left-hander Meghan Beaubien and right-hander Alex Storako took advantage of Storako’s Ann Arbor house having a garage. Warmed by a space heater, the garage featured pitching mats and a net in the driveway. On days when the weather was an issue, they’d work in the basement.

“(It) makes you really grateful for what you have,” Beaubien said.

Hutchins thinks the experience will have a deeper effect on her ace pitcher.

“I think it will make her a better player,” she said. “It makes her less like, everything has to be going my way to achieve what I want and excel.”

There will be a premium on pitching with this demanding schedule. Hutchins has a proven one-two punch with Beaubien and Storako, but she’s counting on Sarah Schaefer to come through with numbers like she posted in 2018 as a freshman. Schaefer pitched 62.1 innings, had 41 strikeouts and a 1.57 ERA. She made five starts and threw a perfect game that season.

Schaefer pitched in 12 games (one start) in 2019, and missed last season with an injury.

“We need more than nine innings from any other pitchers,” Hutchins said. “Boy, do we need Sarah Schaefer to have her year. We need Sarah Schaefer badly to give us her best and to contain opponents.”

The Wolverines will also look to Chandler Dennis, who played in four games and made one start in last year’s abbreviated season, and Lauren Esman, who as a freshman last year made one appearance and threw two shutout innings.

“We’ve got five kids, and I expect that bullpen is gonna be pretty busy,” Hutchins said. “And good thing is they all give us really different looks. Playing a team and trying to beat the same hitters four games in a row with some of the hitters that we face, we’re gonna need all of our arms on deck.

“We’re gonna need to be fit, we’re gonna need to have a lot of endurance, and we’re gonna try to do what we can to minimize the opponent’s offense.”

Beaubien was All-Big Ten her first two seasons, 2018 and 2019, and was the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year in 2018. She has a 1.52 career ERA and is 70-17 overall. Storako was on the All-Big Ten Freshman team in 2019 after going 14-6 with a 2.02 ERA. She has a 2.16 career ERA and is 22-9 overall. The biggest pitching demands will be on those two, but they know the others have to do more than just contribute.

“Our coaches really preach having a staff, especially this year. It’s a lot of innings,” Beaubien said. “I’m anticipating more people getting innings and really leaning on the whole staff especially with the new format of the season. Being able to lean on our whole staff of pitchers is going to be a really big determining factor in success in the Big Ten.”

Twitter: @chengelis