The Gophers softball team will play its first outdoor home series of the season against a team that has never lost in Minnesota’s home stadium.
A learning opportunity is one way to look at this weekend’s matchup with two-time defending conference champion Michigan, which is ranked third in the latest ESPN.com/USA Softball poll and hasn’t lost in Minneapolis since 1996, a stretch of 12 games.
“We love it,” co-head coach Lisa Bernstein said. “You go out there, and you take it one pitch at a time, and you keep learning with every opportunity. Just go out there and play ball.”
Michigan is a perfect 8-0 against the Gophers at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, which will open its 11th season as the Gophers’ home venue at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“[The Wolverines] have a tremendous coach and a tremendous program,” Bernstein said. “They produce a quality product… From top to bottom they’re impressive.”
The Wolverines have won 17 of the last 18 meetings between the two teams. Minnesota’s only victory in that span was Briana Hassett’s shutout on April 27, 2007 in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The next day, the Wolverines gave the ball to freshman lefthander Nikki Nemitz , who earned the win that started Michigan’s current six-game winning streak in the series.
Nemitz, now a senior and the unanimous 2009 Big Ten pitcher of the year, has joined right-hander Jordan Taylor to create a formidable pitching duo that has made Michigan the conference’s top pitching team for a third-straight season.
Taylor (14-2, 1.17 earned-run average) and Nemitz (11-3, 1.85), are the primary reasons for Michigan’s Big Ten-low .178 opponents batting average. Minnesota currently has the conference’s lowest batting average (.225).
But junior first baseman Malisa Barnes , who went 2-for-3 in her first game against Michigan two years ago but has just one hit in four games since, said she’s ready for the challenge.
“They’re phenomenal pitchers, but I’ve held my own against them,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what I’m capable of this year.”
The Gophers improved offensively against Michigan State left-hander Lauren Kramer over the course of two games last weekend. But they’ll need to make quicker adjustments against Taylor and Nemitz, who alternated starts for the Wolverines last weekend.
Though they’ll be facing elite pitchers, the Gophers think they have a good one on their side in freshman Lacey Middlebrooks, who has all of their wins but has lost three-straight Big Ten starts.
The Wolverines have a .301 team batting average and five everyday players hitting at least .329.
They are led by first baseman Dorian Shaw, who has improved from a .253 average a year ago to hit a team-leading .361 so far this season. She is tied for the Big Ten lead with 11 home runs.
“We’ve practiced knowing that everybody [on Michigan] is an aggressive hitter,” said Middlebrooks, who is second to Taylor in the Big Ten in strikeouts. “We have to take a similar approach to it, just knowing their aggressiveness to the game.”
The Gophers faced top teams in their non-conference schedule, but they didn’t score a run in two losses to then-No. 4 Georgia and No. 2 Arizona in early March.
Middlebrooks allowed eight hits and six walks while throwing four wild pitches in a 7-0 loss to Georgia March 5. She said the experience of facing elite opponents taught her the importance of getting ahead of hitters.
“I found out that if I hit spots, we’ll get the ground balls we need and get the easy outs,” Middlebrooks said. “
The Wolverines will enter Saturday afternoon having played just two days earlier, as Wednesday’s doubleheader at Indiana was moved to Thursday afternoon.
The Gophers don’t expect that to affect a veteran Michigan team. Middlebrooks said the Gophers know their own mistakes will be magnified against the Wolverines.
“The intensity is 10 times higher in practice,” she said. “You know their history. You want to play up to what they’re going to play.”
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