Softball Regional Preview
This is going to be a bit briefer than my previous two write-ups about this team, as I’m in the middle of a very busy week and my energy has waned a little given the disappointing results of late (how spoiled we softball fans are when a Big Ten co-championship and Player of the Year is a disappointment!). However, I still wanted to get something together for the regional, as this team absolutely has the potential to do great things if they can get firing on all cylinders again.
Big Ten Recap
Halfway through the Big Ten season, everything was looking great down at the Wilpon Complex. The Wolverines were riding a 20-game winning streak that had begun with a 3-0 victory over then-7th ranked Arizona. Sierra Romero lead the country in batting average, along with several other offensive categories, star pitcher Haylie Wagner was in the top ten nationally with a sub-1 ERA, and the team was highly ranked in runs per game, fielding percentage, team ERA, and more. At the height, the Maize & Blue climbed into the top 5 in the polls and looked to be a lock to cruise to yet another outright Big Ten Championship and a Super Regional seed.
The first bump in the road came at the hands of Minnesota, who snapped the winning streak, claiming a 1-0 win in a pitcher’s duel that ended as Wagner’s first loss on the season. Michigan bounced back to claim the next two, however, and no one thought much of a close loss to a strong team. After that, however, things began to get out of hand. A mid-week loss to a middling Purdue team turned into the prelude to an astonishing run-rule loss at miserable Illinois. The tail-spin was capped off by losing two out of three to Wisconsin, which ended up costing the Wolverines an outright title. For the first time in years, we were forced to share, in this case with Nebraska, an up-and-coming team in the conference.
Michigan went to the conference tournament looking for a measure of redemption as well as an opportunity to shore up their claim to host a regional. Things looked good in the beginning, with a decisive win over the Illinois team that had embarrassed the team just a few weeks back, followed up by a thrilling walk-off win against Wisconsin. It seemed as though Michigan was exorcising the demons as, despite a few sloppy mistakes, they found themselves matched up with Minnesota in the conference final. After grabbing a 2-0 lead, Michigan gave it right back again, as the Gophers smacked two solo-shots to tie things up. Michigan missed several opportunities to reclaim the advantage, and in the end Minnesota walked off a winner as a defensive blunder turned what could have been the final out of the 7th inning into a game-winner.
In the end, the tumble cost Michigan the right to host a regional, and they will instead travel to Tempe, where Arizona State will play host. It’s difficult to point to any one problem that cost Michigan during the home stretch of the regular season. The pitching was not as good, the offense faltered in key situations, and the number of errors was on the rise. There is a lot to correct if Michigan wants to make a big run in the postseason.
With all that said, Carol Hutchins isn’t one of the greatest of all-time for nothing. She has assembled a powerfully talented team and doubtless knows exactly what needs doing. We can be quite certain that Arizona State was not at all happy to see us on their radar. While Wagner’s ERA has taken a hit of late, she still clocks in at #25 in the nation and tops in the Big Ten with a 1.55 mark. Similarly, recent errors have hurt Michigan’s fielding percentage, but a .977 number is tied for 5th in the country in that category even so, and at 6.69 runs per game, the offense is tenth in the land. The offense is powered by the Big Ten Player of the Year, sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero. Romero has continued to put up video game numbers all season long, leading the country in batting average by almost three-tenths of a point with a staggering .510. She likewise leads in on-base percentage by a country mile, with an almost-unbelievable .646 (2nd place is way back at .581). She is also tied for 2nd in the land in runs scored per game, a great testament to Blanchard, who has been her protection for most of the season. Perhaps losing the right to host a regional will be just the wake-up call this team needs. A deep run is still very much in the cards if everything shapes up right.
Three teams look to stand in Michigan’s way in their quest to advance to the super regional. Michigan will play San Diego State Friday at 12:30 PM, with more games to follow depending on the results. All regional games will be broadcast on ESPNU, so even though we don’t get to watch at Wilpon, we’ll still get to see our ladies compete!
San Diego State
The Aztecs took home the Mountain West crown this year with a 16-8 conference record. Overall, they went 39-17, with one win against a ranked team (a decisive 7-3 result over California). Outside of that, they lost to a few other ranked teams, but mostly faced a fairly light schedule against which they had decidedly mixed results. In the circle, SDSU is a one-trick pony, living and dying on the fortunes of sophomore southpaw Danielle O’Toole. Her 1.66 ERA (tied for 34th nationally) and 30-8 record are impressive despite the less-than stellar opposition she faced. She is definitely a strike-out pitcher, boasting 184 Ks on the season to only 39 BBs. She should provide a decent test for the Michigan batters in the regional opener.
On offense, the Aztecs have a balanced attack, with 6 different players batting over .300 for the season, the highest mark being .361. That mark is held by Sydnee Cable, who also gets on base over half the time. Patrice Jackson is the real driving force of the offense, however, with an on-base of .543 and a team-leading 16 long-balls. Both are somewhat strike-out prone, however, so there will be chances to set them down without facing too much damage. This is a match-up that Michigan should win, but can’t take for granted – as if we needed any reminding of that right now!
The Big Green (!) dominated Ivy League play, running away with the championship on the strength of an 18-2 record and will be making their first NCAA appearance. While they will almost surely be steam-rolled by a highly-ranked Arizona State squad in the opening game, it’s possible we could see them at some point in a loser’s bracket match-up. Outside of the Ivy League, Dartmouth only managed a 15-17 tally, despite not facing any powerful opposition. Their top pitcher is Kristen Rumley, whose 1.86 ERA is tops on the team, as is her 18-7 record. Morgan McCalmon has also seen substantial time, putting together a 10-7 record and a 2.49 ERA. Their offense is a little more top-heavy than SDSU’s, with only four .300 hitters (two of whom, incidentally, are the aforementioned pitchers). Katie McEachern provides most of the power, leading the team in homers and RBIs, with 8 and 30, respectively. If Michigan ends up in a pitched battle with this team at any point, it’ll be time to sound the alarm bells. If all goes well, we should never have to face them.
The Sun Devils are the regional hosts and favorites to win. They went 44-10-1 (rain lead to the tie, a 2-2 draw with top-ranked Oregon), and 15-7-1 in the ultra-tough Pac-12. Like Michigan, however, they have been scuffling somewhat of late. Ranked in the top-5 at one point, they are now only the #9 seed in the NCAA tournament, having three losses and a tie in their last five games. Their struggles are more understandable, however, as they came against Oregon and three-seed (and perennial powerhouse) UCLA. The Sun Devils will be looking to regain some momentum by throttling Dartmouth before the real showdown later on.
ASU’s offense is strong top to bottom, with 6 players hitting over .320 (and another just a couple points under .300), giving them the 12th-ranked team batting average in the NCAA. What’s more, they have some serious power as well. Four separate players boast double-digit home run totals, and only one of their starters has fewer than 6 round-trippers. All these numbers have come against the always-strong pitching of the Pac-12, as well, so there isn’t much of an issue of inflation against weak opposition. This is a team that can punish you 1-9, so if Michigan wants to win, the pitching and fielding will have to be absolutely top-notch. Defensive mistakes or pitches left hanging will be turned into runs in very short order.
In addition to their potent offense, senior-righty Dallas Escobedo is a powerful presence in the circle. The National Player of the Year Finalist managed a 1.85 ERA, and with over 10 Ks per game, is among the nation’s best strike-out pitchers. She is absolutely the real deal, although last year Michigan’s own Player of the Year candidate Sierra Romero did touch her up for a 2-run blast in the wee hours of the morning. She got her revenge earlier this season, however, pitching a brilliant 1-hitter in a 2-0 shutout during the non-conference schedule.
Michigan is facing down a tough challenge, and they’re in a hole they dug themselves. Nevertheless, this is a team that was once looking likely to cruise to a top-5 finish in the country, one that has wins against a number of elite teams, and one that boasts (in my totally-not-biased opinion) the best candidate for the Player of the Year award. In the end, it seems likely that this regional will break down into a best of three series between Michigan and ASU, with a couple other games mixed in for good measure. Neither Dartmouth nor SDSU look like serious threats to win the thing. It’s tough to pick against the Sun Devils, but I will say that Michigan absolutely has a shot to win here. All that’s needed is cleaning up the mistakes and playing to ability. Do that, and we could be looking at a super-regional date with (most likely) Florida State!