Softball Super-Regional Preview
Now that we’ve all had a few hours to come down from the gibbering sports-high provided by one of the most phenomenal innings in Michigan softball history, let’s take a look back at the weekend that was and look ahead at Florida State, who stands between Michigan and a return to the Women’s College World Series.
The regional weekend began with a game almost as crazy as the one it ended with. This, of course, is not exactly what you want going up against an SDSU squad that should be overmatched, but Michigan’s pitching was shaky and the Aztecs proved early and often that they were not intimidated by the big stage or the big Michigan name. Michigan actually fell behind early on a home run from a slap hitter before bouncing back to take a two-run lead on the strength of a Sierra Lawrence three-run blast (more from her later!). San Diego State tied it up and chased starter Haylie Wagner shortly thereafter, and the shoot-out was on in earnest. The Wolverines continued to pound away, eventually building up a 7-4 lead which they took into the 7th inning. The wheels came off for the Michigan defense, however, as the Aztecs loaded the bases and scored three runs off of a single (off Betsa), a walk (off Driesenga), and an RBI ground-out (off Wagner, who re-entered the game). Wagner stopped the bleeding there, and no more runs would be scored until the bottom of the ninth. In extra innings, freshman Lindsay Montemarano found herself on third after an error in the outfield turned a single into a triple, and Wagner brought her home with a sky-high sac-fly. After being chased early, Wagner redeemed herself in a big way, and was named player of the game by ESPN.
Saturday started out roughly for the Wolverines, who took an early lead against Arizona State in the winner’s bracket game, but couldn’t hold it as the long ball got to Wagner again. A 4-1 loss sent Michigan to the loser’s bracket, where they faced San Diego State once again. Things went much more to plan in the rematch, as the Maize & Blue mercy-ruled the Aztecs 9-1 (6 inn.) on the strength of a strong outing by freshman Megan Betsa. Betsa scattered a few too many base runners for comfort, but got the outs she needed time and again, earning her first post-season win. The highlight of the game, however, was provided by sophomore phenom Sierra Romero. Although she struggled (by her standards, at least) throughout the weekend due to flu-like symptoms, seeing her sparkling .510 batting average dip to … a still sparkling .487, she showed why she still belonged on the field, crushing a grand slam that put Michigan up by 7. The Aztecs proved a spirited team all weekend, but just couldn’t hold up in the end against the barrage of Michigan hitting.
The drubbing of SDSU sent Michigan into the Regional Final needing to win back-to-back games against host Arizona State and their National Player of the Year candidate Dallas Escobedo. In short, the stage was set for a day of softball that Michigan fans will never forget. Early on, it looked to be more of the same from Saturday, as starting pitcher Megan Betsa was chased in the first inning after handing the Sun Devils a two-run lead. Haylie Wagner entered the circle after that, and would not be moved out the rest of the day, making a slew of great pitches and reminding Michigan fans of why she was billed as the ace of the staff. Romero, while vomiting on the bench between innings, still somehow managed to jack a 2-run shot to tie the game in the bottom of the first. After that, her offense started to falter, but she continued to make great defensive plays from her short-stop position. The heroics of Romero and Sappingfield, who were both seriously ill and playing in 100+ degree heat (Romo also had the added problem of a banged knee from Saturday’s late-game), were vital in this pressure-packed situation. She would score again in the third, drawing a walk that set up another 2-run blast, this one coming from Senior Caitlin Blanchard, who’s protection of Romero is one of the most vital under-rated parts of Michigan’s success this season. The 4 runs would be all Wagner needed, as Michigan held on for a 4-3 victory, forcing a winner-take-all nightcap.
That nightcap would prove to be nothing less than one of the greatest games in Michigan postseason history, quite possibly the best ever in the regional round. Once again the Maize & Blue got to ASU star Dallas Escobedo in the first inning, this time via a pair of bases-loaded walks. After that, though, the Sun Devils’ ace settled in, and, despite having thrown well over 300 pitches on the weekend (no one else entered the circle for ASU during the entire regional), seemed to have things mostly in hand as an error and a couple of home-runs staked her side to a 4-2 lead. A Sierra Lawrence solo shot in the 5th cut the lead to 1. Nevertheless, with even Romo’s magic bat going cold (an inning-ending double play & a K to end the Michigan 6th can only be chalked up to serious illness), things looked bleak as the Wolverines came up to bat in the top of the seventh, and bleaker still when a ground-out brought Sierra Lawrence to the plate with one out and no runner to advance.
And then all hell broke loose in the best possible way. Determined to remind the world that Michigan doesn’t just have one Sierra, the sophomore outfielder smashed the first pitch she saw over the fences, staying fair by only a few yards. The dugout erupted as Silo’s first-ever multi-HR game tied things up. Just as the cheers started to die down with senior Taylor Hasselbach coming to the plate, the Michigan fans and players roared into life once more as a no-doubter (the outfielders didn’t even move) crushed to center field unbelievably put the Wolverines ahead. From being a minor role-player for her first three years, Hasselbach has exploded onto the scene as a senior, and now has a Michigan moment that she’ll never forget.
That would be all the scoring in the Michigan half of the inning, but the damage was done, and the shoe was on the other foot, with the Sun Devils needing at least a run and having only three outs to do it in. A ground-out, a single, and a pop-out brought Amber Freeman to the plate. Taking her cue from Lawrence and Hasselbach, Freeman swung away at the first pitch she saw, belting it to straightaway center field. The Arizona State crowd cheered, Freeman started sprinting around the bases, and Hutch looked like she was going to join Romo and Sappingfield in vomiting. The only person in the stadium who still thought Michigan had a chance as the little yellow ball streaked towards the fence was senior outfielder Lindsay Doyle. Doyle stretched every inch of her 5-foot 4-inch frame to pull back the would-be walk-off, saving the day and putting Michigan through to the Super Regionals in Tallahassee. On the roster, Michigan doesn’t have anyone listed shorter than Doyle, but in that moment, she towered over them all, spoiling ASU’s day and extending her career with an immortal memory.
With the brilliant heroics of the regional behind us, we turn to consider the next opponent, the Seminoles of Florida State. The Noles have blazed through their season to this point almost without a hitch, boasting a dazzling 53-6 record. The ACC is not a particularly strong softball conference, and no one was able to provide them with much in the way of a challenge, as they won both the regular season and tournament championships by decent margins, racking up 8 mercy-rule wins along the way. Their few losses have been competitive affairs against quality opposition, leaving no real embarrassments to speak of. One note of interest is that they did lose their one match-up against a Big Ten team, dropping their season opener against Nebraska 4-3.
For the second week in a row, Michigan will have to face down a Player of the Year finalist in the circle. Lacey Waldrop anchors the FSU rotation, boasting a .90 ERA that has her in the top five nation-wide. She hurls almost four times as many Ks as BBs, and has conceded only 4 homers all season. Unlike ASU, however, who lived and died on the arm of Dallas Escobedo, the Noles seem to use their rotation a little more. While Waldrop has started 37 games this year, she’s been relieved in twelve of those. Jessica Burroughs is the other starter for Florida State. She’s a step back from Waldrop’s dominance, but still a solid pitcher in her own right, with a 1.89 ERA. Finally, there is Jessica Nori, a reliever with 18 appearances but only one start. Expect Florida State to go with Waldrop as long as they can, but if the Michigan bats get to her, the Noles do have some valid options in the bullpen.
Offensively, Maddie O’Brien (FSU’s other Player of the Year finalist!) is the star. She’s their only player with more than 5 at-bats who is hitting .400 or better, and she is also the team-leader in homers with 23. Like Sierra Romero, she also plays shortstop and bats third. Courtney Senas is the other major threat. She sets the table for O’Brien, but can also play long ball, having cleared the fences 13 times. There are a few other .300 hitters in the line-up, but it doesn’t quite provide the top-to-bottom fear that ASU boasted. That said, with the up-and-down pitching Michigan has had lately, nothing can be taken for granted. Hopefully Wagner’s strong finish to the Regional will carry over and those concerns can be put to bed.
FSU did struggle to put away South Florida last weekend, but that’s understandable given the excellent pitching the Bulls have. After the madness that was the Regional, I’m not even going to try to make any predictions here. If Michigan plays their best, they can win, if they play their worst, they’ll lose, and if it’s somewhere in between, it’ll be a toss-up. I expect another round of thrilling softball, although unfortunately I’ll be at a conference & unable to follow the games. Keep the live threads going, guys, and go Blue!