With nine straight victories and a stretch of 40 consecutive scoreless innings this spring, Gophers senior Autumn Pease just might be the frontrunner to win Big Ten softball pitcher of the year.

She almost never had the chance to prove herself worthy of that honor, though.

When the 5-9 righthander from Murrieta, Calif., told the Gophers she wanted to return for a fifth year, Pease didn't know if that was possible. She was coming off an injury-plagued 2022 campaign that saw her finish with an 11-14 record and pitch count limits due to arm pain.

"It was kind of an internal battle," said Pease, who has 12 more wins than a season ago. "I told myself I'm going to go through summer and see how my arm is feeling. And if it wasn't better, I wasn't going to put myself through that. I didn't want lifelong damage on my arm."

At 23-6 this year, Pease has been better than ever with her arm strength and command. She leads the Big Ten in victories and strikeouts (229) entering the final regular-season series Friday through Sunday vs. Michigan at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

The Gophers (33-16, 14-6 Big Ten) experienced a major turnaround thanks to their 22-year-old ace who is having more fun on the mound now that she's healthy. Pease recaptured the form she had during a breakout junior season that saw her earn All-Big Ten second team honors in 2021.

"Her last year was figuring out how to throw because her arm felt different," Gophers softball coach Piper Ritter said. "She had to maintain her arm strength and her body. This year we've been very aware of it and stayed up with her [physical therapy] to be strong enough to be able sustain pitching through the season."

Pease credits much of her progress to successful training after platelet-rich plasma injections in the offseason. Angels star Shohei Ohtani and other MLB players have used PRP injections, a nonsurgical treatment for ligament and tendon injuries.

Two years ago, Pease had bicep surgery after finishing with a 12-3 record and leading the team with a 1.75 ERA. She pitched her first career no-hitter against Nebraska. But Pease could barely reach home plate with some pitches at the end of the Big Ten season "because my arm hurt so bad," she said.

"My speeds were pretty low, and I wasn't throwing too great," said Pease, who went on to struggle with her arm during the 2022 season while opponents combined to hit .294 with 27 home runs against her.

But Pease looks unbeatable now. Her last defeat came in a 9-3 loss April 7 vs. Indiana at home. Since then, she's undefeated in 10 appearances with 62 strikeouts, only six walks and two earned runs in the last 60 innings.

In a series sweep against Iowa last month, Pease combined for 24 strikeouts and pitched two complete-game shutouts. She then struck out nine batters in a shutout victory at Wisconsin on April 26. And she followed that up by allowing one run over 14 innings in two wins at Ohio State last weekend.

"I could only throw 60 pitches in a game and then I was done, so my arm didn't feel great last year," Pease said. "This year, I've obviously done my rehab and I'm able to pitch full games and everything is just feeling good."

She is having the best season for a Gophers pitcher since Amber Fiser was a first-team All-America in 2019.

Pease has come a long way since transferring to the Gophers from Idaho State after her freshman year in 2019. Her sophomore year revealed glimpses of her potential even with a 2-1 loss to second-seeded UCLA in the NCAA regional finals in 2020. Pease, who pitched a complete game with seven strikeouts vs. the Bruins, led the Gophers with 2.12 ERA that season.

"She's a little bit like Sara Groenewegen in the sense that she can use her changeup at any given time," Ritter said, comparing Pease to a former Gophers All-America and Olympic medalist from Canada. "She's fearless with it — and it doesn't matter what count."

On Monday, Pease won her third Big Ten pitcher of the week honor this season for the Gophers, who have won eight games in a row. Everything seems to be coming together at the right time with the Big Ten tournament next week.

"We're pitching well and have a pretty good command of our pitches," Ritter said. "She's been really efficient in there. She controls her walks and doesn't give up freebies. She makes them earn it and that helps when you get to the sixth and seventh [innings]."