Niko Porikos grew up in an NTDP billet home. Cool story.
6/2/2015 – Michigan 1, Florida 0 – 60-7, Championship Series tied 1-1 (best of 3)
— Matt Lisle (@CoachLisle) June 3, 2015
I will get to what the ump called this later; it is up top for the visual: One of the two greatest Michigan softball teams in the history of a very good program is an inch away from something, and Florida, themselves one of the best teams ever assembled, huge, athletic, merciless, focused, defensive, is literally blocking Michigan's path.
This was a triumph. Everyone knew after Florida in the first game used Aleshia Ocasio, and relieved her with Delanie Gourley, that Player of the Year Lauren Haeger would get the melon—which looks more like an apple in her hands—in Game 2. Haeger throws as hard as anyone and has a kind of curve-change that complements it, but her primary weapon is that fastball has so much late life it's impossible to square, and even solidly hit balls die from that spin. It doesn't help that Florida's mechanical infielders are the best in the game at turning those goofy grounders into outs.
I'm making a note here: Huge Success. Sierra Lawrence welcomed Haeger by slapping a leadoff single through a left side playing tight on an 0-2 count, then beat out Florida's double-play attempt on Romero's grounder. Michigan then scored her on a single by Susalla. The rest of the night would be an all-out assault on that run. Sierra's nickname is "The Silent Assassin" because she steals third; last night her speed squeezed out a run when it seemed neither pitcher was going to give up any.
It's hard to overstate my satisfaction. Haylie Wagner staged her own assault. In the course of this season, which early on suffered the loss of fellow senior Sara Driesenga, the younger Megan Betsa has been Ace A and Wagner Ace B. Both have shone most brilliantly in relief of one another. Betsa pitched Game 1 of this series and as Ace mentioned yesterday, she was tentative. All day the Florida hitters (who drew over 100 hit-by-pitches this season) crowded the plate and Betsa threw away from them.
As she had in relief in Game 1, Wagner went right after them. Every once in awhile, usually whenever Haeger got to bat again, Florida would put a runner in scoring position and Haylie would pitch out of the jam.
These points of data make a beautiful line. The last such came in the 6th, when Florida got on with a bunt single with 1 out and Haeger coming up to bat. After two fouls (one to deep left, the other behind the catcher) fell just out of reach, Haeger connected and off the bat there was a sickening moment when you thought this was going to bloop over the infield. Instead it floated harmlessly into Romero's glove.
One more inning and two strikeouts later, Wagner had bought the Wolverines another 7 innings by adding 7 shutout frames to a current total of 0.00 runs in 20 innings in these WCWS.
That stat is downright insane considering over half of those innings have come against this lineup—Florida averaged 6 runs per game this year in the ur-pitcher conference, and was never shut out until Wagner did so last night. The rest of those innings were against the just-as-scary LSU, and UCLA. To put this in perspective, the football equivalent would be a defense going up against Oregon, Baylor, Ohio State, then Ohio State again, and giving up just a handful of missed field goals. If there's a better offense the lefty hasn't mowed down the last two weeks, it's only because it's on her side.
[Highlights from MGoBlue's janky video.]
We do what we must because we can. It was the third time these two teams played a dramatic 1-run game this year, and the first bears mention. It was Michigan's first game, Florida's second. Ocasio struck out 10 in that game, but Wagner kept #1 Florida to one run—off the bat of Lauren Haeger of course.
In the top half of the final inning, down to their last strike, Michigan tied it on a Christner double into right-centerfield gap. Wagner pinch-hit and, eerily similar to game 1 of this series, hit a deep fly ball that missed the foul pole by inches before getting out. In the bottom, Wagner walked the first two batters, and Florida bunted them over. Florida brought in a pinch-hitter who knocked what appeared to be a game-winning 3-run homer, except the Gators didn't properly inform the umpires she was being reinserted (they'd taken her out for a defensive replacement in the 6th). The home run was removed on the technicality. Then Wagner threw a wild pitch that ended both the game and the controversy.
At the time the Florida loss was the reason Michigan couldn't claim #1 even after romping through the rest of that month. A softball season at Michigan is kind of like a Wichita State basketball or Boise State football one: they play the first six weeks on the road in tournaments the southern teams schedule earlier and earlier (this game was on February 7th) because they can. Michigan tries to cram as many big wins as possible into that because the Big Ten season is mostly a "don't screw this up" marathon before the postseason.
For the good of all of us (except the ones who are dead). Was everybody kind of annoyed that Florida's players got a cut-video on ESPN doing a Gator chompy version of our "It's great… to be…" cheer? On one hand and 4/5 of the remaining fingers, the cheer doesn't have anything particularly applicable to Michigan except an arrogant tone, and the meter's just a liiiiitle not quite right for the lyrics, and we apparently stole it from Auburn in the 1980s, and certainly lately even when it's correct it's really not:
As long as we keep screaming we don't have to talk about how we nearly botched that two-minute drill.
On the last finger, they played that cheer with zero acknowledgement that Florida was appropriating the other team's thing. I guess anyone who would get the joke got it, and anyone who wouldn't probably thinks the Florida Gators have an arrogant cheer they're a syllable too short to be using.
[UPDATE: A guy in the comments claims Florida has been doing it since the 1960s. I'm not sure I'd trust half of what any Gator says, but the hand in favor of this cheer is down to a pinky nub].
I'm not even angry. On the blown call, I think John U. Bacon nailed the problem:
Another great game, Michigan v. Florida. But ump blew obstruction call at third. Why mic them? Knowing their mic'ed, they'd never admit it.
— John U. Bacon (@Johnubacon) June 3, 2015
Other than some Florida/SEC partisans who'd believe in whatever cake serves their interests, the public was in pretty strong agreement that obstruction call, the difference between a runner on 3rd with Christner coming to bat and going into the 6th up 1-0 with Haeger due up, was blown.
I was a softball IM umpire, which is about as relevant to the Championship Series as a little league ump's experience would be to MLB, but two things I'm pretty certain are universal across the sport are 1) how obstruction is called, and 2) you never tell a fellow umpire they blew the call unless you're certain. If you're told you blew something you respect that—this is your chance to not look like a fool or become part of the game.
The umps were mic'ed so we got to hear the field umpire come in and advise the plate ump she had obstruction, and the plate umpire respond harshly "I didn't have obstruction." I bet you a delicious chocolate cake if the country isn't listening in on the huddle that ump takes the get out of jail free card. Instead he sticks with his call so he's not the guy getting corrected on ESPN. Fortunately it didn't affect the outcome.
Other than that, and kind of a muddy outside corner both teams have been taking advantage of, the umpiring has been excellent so I'm willing to give him a mulligan on this.
Anyway this cake is great; it's so delicious and moist. Florida didn't take a loss until 26 games after the close brush with Michigan; in that loss then-#2 LSU put up 9 runs in the 1st inning and the Gators came back to tie it 10-10 before losing 14-10.
As you've seen the last two evenings, Michigan and Florida are pretty evenly matched, which is incredible if you've spent the last several years hearing how Florida is the kind of softball team a scientific testing facility would assemble if given unlimited time and resources to manipulate human bodies for maximum softball output. The prevailing wisdom had them winning the national championship this year even before they did last year.
Michigan may be frustrating to them, but it's not plucky upset frustration so much as why do these teams both have to exist the same season!? As a fan you're terrified of everything but to the softball world Michigan is nearly as much a juggernaut, the Brady to their Manning, the Ali to their Frazier, the Nadal the world was crying for since the moment Federer ascended to the top of it. The season until now was hardly preliminary, but exactly nobody is surprised it will end in a game between the Gators and Wolverines.
And end it will. By the time the Earth has spun half-way around today Wagner's streak and Haeger being allowed to play against college students, and the careers of Wagner and Lauren Sweet (we'll wait and see if Driesenga gets a medshirt), and Romero's record-obliterating season will be something to remember instead of live. The expectation was for this year to come down to these colossi, and all promises were kept.
|What:||Michigan vs. Florida Game 3 for the National Championship|
|When:||Tonight, 8 ET|
|Where to watch:||ESPN|
THANK YOU FOR PARTICIPATING
ENRICHMENT CENTER ACTIVITY!!
Can you describe the incident from your point of view?
I was aware I was not aware of a situation that may or may not have developed near the Legos.
There was a small child in the aisle who was playing with a sample set of your newest product.
FunShards. Could you describe FunShards?
It's a agglomerated unit of lego fragments or "Fraggers™" deployed for maximum funization. Our current retail activation is just $19.99 for a FunPile™!
It sounds like this is just a pile of sharp plastic fragments.
Parents have always had to worry about whether their child will break their toys moments after they open them. Not at Toys R Us, where our motto is "we break the unbroken."
Does it bother you that that kind of motto is something that the Nazis definitely would have used if they had any MBAs?
Great question, Drew. Great question.
If we can get back to the incident. The child was in the aisle, playing with a sample of your jagged shards of plastic…
"Jaggies™" were given an award by the Underwriters Laboratory.
I thought they were Fraggers?
Oh no, Fraggers are totally different. Fraggers are agglomerated units of lego fragments.
What was this award for?
It was in fact for "Least Good Idea Ever."
That doesn't seem to be a question.
The child was in the aisle, playing with some Jaggies, when your new mascot appeared and… let me just get the police report out… "unrolled his three-foot-long, pestilential tongue while its pus-filled eyes popped out of its sockets."
ScareBear™ is a revolutionary innovation in the mascot field.
The child naturally bolted, except he was standing on bits of broken lego. He fell to the ground. When he got back up he was… "bleeding profusely and covered in plastic shrapnel," says this uncommonly evocative police report. What was your reaction to this sight?
He seemed fine.
He passed out in a pile of plastic and his own vomit.
I guess we'll get the backup kid out here.
This police report says you told them the kid was completely uninjured and totally fine.
In my experience over the last four years, most children are covered in shards of lego, bleeding, and unconscious.
Do you remember anything before the last four years?
Please… please kill me.
It's all in the statement.
You seemed to have a moment of lucidity in which you asked us to murder you.
It's all in the statement.
We haven't received a statement.
Just use the one from the last time this happened.
We haven't received that one either.
JUST USE ANY OF THEM FROM ANY OF THE INCIDENTS THAT HAVE HAPPENED IN THE PAST
IS THIS HELL WHAT DID I DO I JUST SIGNED UP FOR A CRAPPY MINIMUM WAGE JOB AND NOW EVERY DAY IS BLEEDING VOMIT CHILD FOLLOWED BY BLEEDING VOMIT CHILD PRESS CONFERENCE
I MUST BE IN HELL THIS IS WHY I CAN'T DIE NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRY
On the bright side, at least you've been immortalized in Toys R Us's latest product?
Drew. Drew, come here. Drew, you've called me a Nazi at a bleeding vomit child press conference every day for the last four years. Drew, I am a Nazi. I do not have any arms or opposable hooves or anything with which I can self-harm. Drew, I need you to strangle me to death. We've been through so much together.
Don't tell him. Drew, don't tell him.
Don't tell me what?
Geoffery, I strangled you to death yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that.
So this is hell.
This is hell.
I discover this every day.
You discover this every day.
Who could have devised such a diabolical punishment for a simple giraffe who only wanted to eat acacia trees?
He goes by many names.
Michigan fans have been hankering for a big commitment, and they got one this evening in both figurative and literal fashion. Cass Tech OG/DT Michael Onwenu became the seventh commitment for the class of 2016; he'll either be M's second offensive line commit, as most expect, or their first in the trenches on defense.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the post.]
When Haylie Wagner was a freshman Brian and I met for a softball game and discussed how we're going to make an indie football preview book. At the time he said the problem with softball is the pitchers are so dominant that games end 1-0, and Exhibit A was this freshman pitcher before us, one of two such luxuries (Driesenga) on that team, mowing down overmatched hitters with her nasty lefty stuff.
Tonight, in a year hitting came back like it was 1920, facing the Babe Ruth of softball, Michigan plated its first batter and Haylie pitched seven shutout innings to put Michigan one win away from a national championship.
And you can't have one without the other…
See you tomorrow at 8.
It might be time for Haylie Wagner to start in the circle. [Fuller]
Until the gut punch, that felt familiar.
For the third straight game, Haylie Wagner pitched stellar scoreless ball in relief of a shaky Megan Betsa, and Michigan's powerful offense mounted a comeback. This time, however, the comeback stalled on third base; Sierra Romero didn't advance to home on a double-play attempt, and the final two Wolverine batters couldn't knock her in.
Now Michigan is left in the same position they were in 2005, facing consecutive must-win games against the defending national champs. We know it can be done, and while last night's loss stung, it was readily apparent this squad can hang with the Gators.
|What:||Michigan vs. Florida, Game 2 of Final Series (UF leads 1-0)|
|When:||Tonight, 8 ET|
|Where to watch:||ESPN or WatchESPN|
Some scattered thoughts on last night's game and tonight's prospects, which is about the best I can muster at the moment:
ON ROMERO. One can only hope this series isn't defined by Romero's failure to break for home. It'd be a great injustice for a great player, especially because of the way Romero got to third base in the first place; she took a leadoff walk instead of trying to win the game on her own, then advanced to second with her usual heads-up baserunning on a passed ball before Kelly Christner's single.
When Kelsey Susalla hit the potential double-play ball, Romero hesitated, and that split-second of indecision gave her no choice but to stay at third. Yes, it cost Michigan a run on the play, but she still stood on third base with less than two outs. Michigan was still in a good position to tie the game; they just couldn't pull it off, and that's not all on Romero.
IT'S TIME. I'm not sure what else Wagner needs to do to show she deserves the start tonight. This should be enough:
Michigan Pitchers - Last 3 Games Wagner: 11.2 IP, 1 R, 0 ER, 6 H, 11 SO Betsa: 7 IP, 9 R, 9 ER, 11 H, 9 SO
— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) June 2, 2015
Given the stakes, I don't think Michigan can afford to see if Betsa regains her confidence—and her ability to throw first-pitch strikes—before making a change, and it sounds like Carol Hutchins is thinking along those lines:
Hutchins confirmed what has been obvious, that Betsa is struggling with confidence, but wouldn't clearly indicate who might start Tuesday.
"She appears to have some confidence problems, I would say," Hutchins said. "We need our best confidence on the mound, I can tell you that. It's a long tournament hopefully, so we need to get her confidence back. There's no reason not to have confidence this point in the season. It's been a tough week so far."
I'd be surprised if Wagner isn't in the circle from the beginning tonight. There's little room for error, and even less so if Florida makes a pitching change of their own and starts national player of the year Lauren Haeger.
MICHIGAN ARGUABLY PLAYED BETTER. The Wolverines ended up with 11 baserunners, the Gators with six. Wagner nearly tied the game in the sixth when she cracked a ball just outside the left-field foul pole. Sierra Lawrence nearly did the same later that inning with a long fly that had the trajectory but not the distance, barely. After Betsa's struggles, Wagner shut down the Florida offense, and Michigan put up serious offensive threats in the final two innings.
While Michigan lost, they should still have confidence; this game swung on a few plays, and tonight those could easily go the other way.
THUMBS UP, ESPN. When ESPN announced they were adding Curt Schilling to the broadcast for the final series, I was worried the conversation would get bogged down in Softball 101 and how-can-we-compare-this-to-baseball. While there was a little of that, to be sure, I thought Schilling was a good addition to an already strong announcing crew. He showed a great appreciation for the game—which he's quite familiar with, thanks to his daughter—and his analysis was insightful while leaving room for his more experienced counterparts to lead the discussion and guide him when necessary.
The softball broadcasts have been all-around excellent, and it was nice to see Schilling fit right in. While he rubs some people the wrong way, he worked really well in this role.
I DIDN'T PLAN TO BE THIS EMOTIONALLY INVOLVED. At some point in the later innings last night, I realized I was more emotionally invested in the game than I had been for any Michigan sporting event since the Elite Eight game against Kentucky. It felt great, even without the desireable result. I'm no softball buff—like many of you, I started watching when the games hit national TV—but it's impossible to watch one of these games and not get hooked in by the skill, excitement, and emotion. These are world-class athletes hell-bent on making their games as fun as possible.
If it ends tonight, it's been a wonderful ride. I hope it doesn't end tonight.
|What:||Softball in Game 1 of the Championship (best of 3) Series|
|When:||Tonight, 8 ET|
|Where to watch:||ESPN2 or WatchESPN|
|Line:||There are two, one down each foul line. What?|
Preview: Florida is good at softball. They won the national championship last year, beat Michigan 2-1 at the start of this season when Michigan was mercy-ing everyone else, and rolled through the rest. They were the #1 seed with gusto, and beat Tennessee and LSU by a combined 11-2 before having some difficulty dispatching rival-like-thing Auburn 3-2 in extra innings. Like Michigan they are mentally tough as nails.
Lauren Haeger is their pitcher and if you put her on any team they might be where Florida is. She beat out the greatest player in Michigan softball history for the player of the year award and might have deserved to. If Sierra Romero is Miguel Cabrera: softball edition, Haeger is Babe Ruth if Ruth pitched every day. She had a .678 slugging and a 1.24 ERA, averaging a strikeout per inning. I don't have to show you a photo; if you tune in your lizard instincts will immediately recognize the threat.
Ringing the Bell
We also say adieu to baseball. I have two fandoms that predate memory: Tigers and Michigan football. I got on the Red Wings bandwagon about the time Cheveldae was the hot backup we all wanted to start, and Michigan basketball with the '89 run, trading that in for hockey when I got to college because 1998-2002 duh. Pistons were and remain a team I'm into when they're good—other than that I keep myself conversant on Steph Curry etc. because America cares. I keep a peripheral knowledge of other things in case something beeps.
Last month Michigan Baseball beeped.
An average team in a suddenly average league this year, Michigan was out of the bubble unless it could sweep its way into an auto-bid through the Big Ten tourney. This they did, taking out then #4 Illinois in the third of a four-game tournament.
If the alarm made an intelligible sound it was "Carmen Benedetti", Michigan's own Ruth-like object, though he only pitched 14 innings (and tallied 23 strikeouts in them). Benedetti hit .352 and led the team in power numbers from 1st base.
I'd like it if someone else wrote the epitaph on this team because I missed most of the fun; this week I watched the two Louisville games and missed the two against Bradley. L'ville was the host team so I got to see Michigan lose while getting boo'ed. They looked likely to steal the first one until the last inning when right fielder Johnny Slater dove to catch a foul ball with less than two outs and the game-winer ready to tag from 3rd. The second game was a blowout.
Bakich has them headed in the right direction and this year was certainly a step that way. It may have been the tourney taste that basketball got when they surprised Clemson then ran at Blake Griffin until Blake Griffin was like "you are Zak Novak!" If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Beilein's first team it's short and mentions Manny Harris. If you look at the second one there are individual game recaps and memes like "Queme los Barcos!" This team felt like that team.
Softball recap: You were alive for this.
I didn't get into Michigan softball until it was nearly too late—the summer after graduation while I was still hanging around Ann Arbor and umpiring the IM level of it. That was the Marissa Young team, with a young Jessica Merchant and Nicole Motycka on it. Young was the draw; you knew when watching her that you were seeing one of the greats. She'd do things like pitch a no-hitter in the first frame of a double-header, then hit two home runs in the second game.
It was so much fun. Unless you were around for the 19-teens or shortly thereafter (i.e you are Craig Ross) you have no idea how much of a blast it is to go to a ballpark and defy every somber convention baseball's built up since. They would sing at bat music for each other. They would hurl insults at the other bench. They had pepper cheers and everyone came out to greet home runs. Nobody knew what the limit could be so everyone showed up for the Big Ten championship game with MSU; they lost it.
Two years ago they adopted a kid. Not legal-adopted—they just had a little girl they adored so they put her on the team. That was the team with Wagner and Driesenga, and the more raw versions of this team's stars. It wasn't like they went away in the interim—Michigan softball has been an elite program for longer than I've followed it; Hutchins was an heir apparent assistant here when Harbaugh was the quarterback. But again you got that otherworldly talent vibe, especially from Wagner. Megan Betsa's commitment was a huge deal.
The Year of the Pizza
Like before, this team has been building over years and picked up fans in its swell. It has the pizza theme and Sierra Romero (and she has another year!) already puts Denard out of the conversation for greatest Michigan athlete of the decade. It marches to the beat, literally—she starts a beat and they all dance to it—of Lauren Sweet, the most catcher catcher in the history of the tools of ignorance.
I dunno do you really need to know how they beat up on UCLA (the Duke of the sport) and a bunch of SEC powerhouses, how this 'Ship series was ordained movie-style when Michigan opened the season against all-business, defending champion Florida and got thoroughly beat despite the closeness of the score? Do you really need a narrative, or unbelievable statistics, or any of the other accoutrements we pump into sports to keep them lively when they're not? Here's the softball update: they play incredible softball with incredible irreverence. Enjoy the game.