The Minnesota Golden Gophers softball team will host the Michigan Wolverines this weekend at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium in the second to last week of the Big Ten regular season. The conference regular season title will come down to one of these two teams, and this weekend’s four-game series will go a long way to determining who will take home the crown.
The Gophers are coming into this weekend after an unscheduled weekend off, one that may keep Minnesota from winning their first Big Ten regular season title since 2017, and allow the Wolverines to make it three titles in a row, not counting the non played 2020 conference season. Minnesota was set to play a four game series at Wisconsin last weekend, but the series was cancelled due to COVID issues with the Badgers. Thus, heading into the final two weekends of the season the Gophers have played two fewer games than the Wolverines, and trail Michigan by two games in the loss column. Michigan is in first place with a 29-5 record while Minnesota sits in second with a 25-7 tally.
This will be an eventful series for multiple reasons, but the main one is that this is the first regular season series these two teams have played since 2015. Both teams have been at the top of the conference standings since that time, but due to the quirks of the Big Ten scheduling system the teams have not met in the regular season. The last time the Gophers and Wolverines faced off at all was in the 2019 Big Ten Tournament where Michigan defeated Minnesota 3-2 to win the Tournament Championship game. With no Big Ten Tournament this season, it will come down to the best winning percentage for all the marbles and the trophy at the end of the season. This series is so critical to both teams due to the fact that Michigan will complete the regular season next weekend against 13th place Rutgers, while the Gophers will head to last place Penn State. Any outcome other than four game sweeps for the favored teams next weekend should be unacceptable, and thus the four games this weekend should be the ultimate determiner in who will win the conference crown.
The Gophers will need to get championship performances out of their key players this weekend if they want to take down the Wolverines. That will start with Minnesota’s supposed ace in the circle in Amber Fiser. Fiser has struggled at times in the 2021 season and comes into the weekend with an 11-5 record, a 1.97 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 121 innings pitched this season. She has struggled late in games blowing leads in the fifth or later in two of her losses. Fiser has been much improved as of late moving her record from 6-4 at one point to her now current 11-5 record. Autumn Pease has been the best pitcher for the Gophers this season. She comes into the weekend with an 11-1 record, a 1.45 ERA, and 85 strikeouts and just 15 walks in 92 innings pitched. It will take great performances from both to get the wins Minnesota needs. As a team the Gophers have a 1.83 era which is 15th in the nation, but Michigan has been nearly unhittable entering this weekend with a team ERA of 1.08—the nations best. Alex Storako has been one of the nation’s best pitchers with an 18-2 record, a 0.64 ERA and an incredible 219 strikeouts in 119 innings pitched. Michigan’s #2 pitcher Meghan Beaubien has been nearly as good with a 11-3 record, a 1.36 ERA and 156 strikeouts.
It will be a battle between the Wolverines amazing pitching and the Gophers ferocious power. Michigan has given up just 8 home runs on the season, but Minnesota leads the conference with 36 bombs. Natalie DenHartog is tied for the league lead with 10 dingers on the season while freshman catcher Sara Kinch has six, and a pair of other Gophers each have five. Minnesota will need to score on the long-ball because as a team they are only hitting .251 on the season. Meanwhile the Wolverines also can hit. Their .308 team average is boosted by star Lexi Blair who is hitting a remarkable .427 on the season. Add a pair of hitters with eight homers each, and this weekend will be a stiff task for the Gophers.
With Michigan’s .853 to .781 winning percentage lead, the Gophers will need to sweep the series if they want to jump into first place. Minnesota can close the gap to .789 to .778 with three wins, but then they will still need one more Wolverines loss to Rutgers the next weekend—not likely. So the #23 Gophers will need to play up to their opponents like they did when the swept then #21 Northwestern in Evanston earlier in the season. Anything less than a 3-1 series win for the Gophers and they can probably put any thoughts of a Big Ten title to bed and hope to get ready to earn an at large NCAA bid.
All four games this weekend will air live on BTN. The series kicks off with a 7PM first pitch on Friday night followed by a double-header at 1:30 and 4:00 on Saturday and the finale at 2:00 Sunday.