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Who's on first? Lexie Blair makes 'seamless' position switch after injury for UM softball

Lexie Blair predicted Michigan softball would be sent to an NCAA Tournament Regional in Florida. Maybe it was more about being hopeful, but either way she is delighted to be playing in her home state with plenty of friends and family able to make the games.

Blair is from Winter Garden, Florida, and attended West Orange High. Michigan, ranked No. 23, was the last name called to fill the 64-team bracket and is playing in the regional hosted by No. 16 seed UCF in Orlando, about 40 minutes from her home.

The Wolverines (36-16), playing their best softball late in the season, will face South Dakota State in the double-elimination regional on Friday morning.

“It's like a nice little home game event for my family,” Blair said.

This also will be the first time many of them have seen her playing first base. While Blair, the reigning Big Ten softball player of the year, recovered from a sprained and badly bruised right knee, little did she know what might be in the works for her.

She was injured April 1 at Northwestern after crashing into the outfield fence, spent a week on crutches and was working to get back into the lineup. Tests ruled out an ACL or MCL injury, but the knee was incredibly swollen and it was too painful when she put weight on it. Initially, Blair said she struggled mentally dealing with the injury. She was so used to being part of the games, and she couldn’t even get up to run out to celebrate a teammate’s home run.

The senior left-handed hitter and two-time unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection was hitting off a tee during a recent practice as she grooved her swing. Bonnie Tholl, Michigan’s associate head coach, approached and asked if she had spoken to head coach Carol Hutchins.

“When I hear those words, I'm like, 'Uh, I’m in trouble. What’s going on?’” Blair said in an interview with The Detroit News.

Hutchins asked if she had ever played first base. Blair is an outfielder. She thinks like an outfielder, she throws like one. First base? No, not really her thing.

“I probably had in Little League, but mind you, I was 12 years old,” Blair said, laughing. “This is Division I softball right now. I asked her, ‘What are you trying to get at?’”

What Hutchins was getting at was finding a way to get Blair’s effective bat back in the lineup. With her range of motion limited, playing first seemed like the best option. In the middle of a game against Ohio State in late April, Hutchins inserted Blair at first.

“I'm like, ‘Holy crap,’” Blair said. “I had two days notice.”

She worried about not looking natural fielding a ground ball. She worried about not throwing like an infielder.

“I thought I looked stupid,” Blair said, laughing again. “It was scary, but it wasn't like a lot of pressure. My teammates were really helpful giving me all these tips, and Bonnie was like, ‘If it looks like it's about to pop up and hit you, it's probably not going to.' I'm like, ‘Oh, OK.’”

Blair had her breakthrough post-injury performance in the final regular-season series at Wisconsin. She went 7-for-10 with three doubles, three RBIs and three runs scored, and earned Big Ten player of the week honors. She said not putting pressure on her lead foot, the injured right knee, has actually helped her swing. Blair was recently named to the All-Big Ten first team again.

Last week in the Big Ten tournament, Blair was back at first. While her fellow outfielders have teased and said she abandoned them, she looked comfortable in her new — temporary — spot.

“It is as seamless as you could expect,” Hutchins said this week. “I had no qualms at all about putting her at first base. We played backwards softball one day at practice, and that's where everybody hits opposite. They run from home to third instead of home to first. The outfielders come in to play infield, the infielders play outfield and the catchers are the pitchers. It's fun and they have fun with it. And Lexie Blair was playing second base, and I was just marveling at how she fielded every ground ball like she owned the position over.

“It can be a challenge, but what you like most about Lexie Blair, she doesn't make things bigger than they are. She was like, ‘All right, this is what you need me to do and I'll do my best.’ She's pretty easy that way. She's pretty even-keeled, and she doesn't let the game get too big. She doesn't let moments get too big. That’s what I love about her.”

Blair is still not fully pain-free and may not get a chance to get back to the outfield during the postseason, but she will return for another season next year. She will work on her master’s degree in sports management.

“After COVID initially happened and we were granted that fifth year, at first I was reluctant,” Blair said, referring to taking advantage of the bonus year. “But after giving it some thinking, it’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

Now, though, she is focused on playing first and helping the Wolverines as they try to make a splash in the postseason. After starting the Big Ten season 0-4, last weekend they played in the Big Ten tournament title game and lost to Nebraska. The Wolverines are looking more seasoned and producing at the right time.

“We’re getting hits in situations when we need them most and our defense has been solid so we're all looking forward to this regional,” Blair said. “We love having the opportunity to play in the tournament. It's the most fun time of the year.”

And first and foremost, Blair is just happy to be playing again.

Twitter: @chengelis