||Softball in Game 1 of the Championship (best of 3) Series
||Tonight, 8 ET
|Where to watch:
||ESPN2 or WatchESPN
||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.