Notebook: Sierra Romero's bat has bite
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There are times when an outfielder barely moves in pursuit of a ball bound for the far side of the fence, the trajectory making it clear that even a halfhearted jog is futile.
Then there are the home runs that barely allow an outfielder the opportunity to move. The ones for which they're lucky not to be in the way.
In not many more seconds than is required for a sharp intake of breath, Michigan All-American Sierra Romero lined a ball out of park in the third inning of Sunday's series finale against Minnesota. It was all the more impressive for how little time there was to appreciate the feat before the ball roared over the top of the wall and out of sight.
"I just didn't know if it was going to be high enough," Michigan assistant coach and former United States Olympian Jen Brundage said. "There was no question it had the distance. The power that she possesses in such a little package, it's pretty impressive. You see Stacey Nuveman and Crystl Bustos, and they're big, strong women who can hit the ball 400 feet. And then there is this little Sierra, who can hit the ball just as far and just as hard.
"It's awe-inspiring, really."
It's a reminder that the 5-foot-5 Romero never has been and never will be a singles hitter. She's just a hitter. One of the best there is.
Romero enters the final full week of April hitting .514, good enough to lead the nation by the same margin that separates second place from 10th. A season after she burst onto the scene as not just the Big Ten's freshman of the year but its player of the year and set the Michigan single-season record with 23 home runs, the sophomore is challenging for a place on the all-time NCAA single-season batting average leaderboard.
Her home runs are down this season. Her batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage are up. Those developments are not unrelated.
"I knew I was going to be limited in how many strikes I got," Romero said of her second-season expectations. "I knew I was going to have to take my base. That's one thing I talked about with [coach Carol Hutchins], and my dad when I got home, was just getting on base. My most important stat, to me, is my on-base percentage. That's the only one that I care about, because if I get on base, my teammates can hit me in.
"My goal wasn't to try to break the [home run] record or to try to have more RBIs. It was just to get on base."
Romero still has a lot of softball to play and a lot of good pitching to face, particularly in the postseason, but only 21 players in NCAA history have hit .514 or better for an entire season. Only 10 did so in seasons of at least 40 games (Romero is at 43). And only six players in that second group did so in a major conference, which is to say not a lot of people know what Romero is going through when teams do their best to pitch around her.
One of those who does is Brundage, now Michigan's pitching guru but a player who hit .518 for UCLA in 1995.
"It's hard not to let it get in your head because you don't want to be overaggressive and swing at bad pitches because you think they might be pitching around you," Brundage said. "So then you tend to get a little bit tentative and you take really hittable pitches. That can play with a hitter a little bit.
"Sometimes I see that happening with her, but she's able to get herself out of it."
Romero is not the naturally patient sort. She aggressively and proactively pursues what she wants -- eve making her official visit to Michigan in the depth of a typically snowy winter because the lifelong Southern Californian wanted to know exactly what Ann Arbor was like at its worst. But if she has to wait for her pitch, she will. If that means a single or a walk, the latter of which she already has 45 of this season, so be it. Bases are bases.
After Minnesota won the series opener, Romero had an RBI double in the first inning of the middle game of the series. But it was senior Lyndsay Doyle who earned top billing in the game when she threw out a runner at the plate to complete an inning-ending double play in the top of the fifth (although replays suggested it was the wrong call) and drove in the eventual winning runs with a double in the bottom of the inning.
Romero hit the mesmerizing home run early in Sunday's finale but had to jog to first base after she was intentionally walked to load the bases with the score tied 2-2 in the fifth inning. It was Caitlin Blanchard, the next batter up, who cleared the bases with a double and sent the Wolverines on the way to a win that clinched the series and makes yet another Big Ten regular-season championship likely with a three-game lead and eight games to play.
"Probably the best thing I've done this year is not try to do more than I can," Romero said.
The power will be there; she and Hutchins spoke this past week about getting her barrel out in front more quickly. She hit a home run in her first at-bat in the subsequent game, a midweek win against Central Michigan, and had the two extra-base hits against Minnesota.
But for a generational talent, what she can do is plenty.
Gophers' future looks golden
Even as offensive numbers climb in college softball, programs still rise and fall on the arms in the circle. Plenty of teams made postseason appearances, perhaps even a super regional or World Series trip, on the strength of a special pitcher only to fall back to the pack when that individual exhausted her eligibility.
Fail to recruit a replacement, or miss on a recruiting assessment, and a coach can dig into a hole in a hurry.
Minnesota has that transformational pitcher in Sara Moulton, the in-state product who owns program records in most pitching statistics as her senior season winds down. The Golden Gophers made a strong case in Ann Arbor as to why this season offers their best chance for a postseason run, a year after the program returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. They essentially played the Wolverines to a standstill for all but one inning over three days.
But what the weekend also suggested was this won't be Minnesota's only chance at a run. The impressive infield duo of Kaitlyn Richardson and Tyler Walker return for another season. Potential abounds in Sam Macken, the freshman who rose to the moment and briefly tied Sunday's finale with a long home run, and Sydney Fabian, a sophomore who showed impressive range in left field. Most important, Sara Groenewegen will return.
One of only two freshmen in the top 30 nationally in strikeout rate (Michigan's Megan Betsa, the winner Sunday, is the other), Groenewegen provided 2 2/3 innings of no-hit relief to earn the save Friday and pitched well enough to win in a start the following day. Take out one outing against Florida and the native of British Columbia, whose international experience and hitting talents make it far too tempting to compare her to Danielle Lawrie, has a 1.54 ERA.
Minnesota coach Jessica Allister can sleep easy. The rest of the Big Ten? Maybe not so much.
Players of the week
Maddie O'Brien, Florida State: The ACC appears to have officially given up when it comes to keeping O'Brien off the bases -- or more specifically, from circling them at a trot. The rest of the country might do well to learn the lesson. The junior shortstop began the week by going 3-for-3 with a double and two home runs in a midweek win against Pitt. In four more games, the second game of the doubleheader against the Panthers and a three-game weekend series against Syracuse, she walked 12 times. Even that wasn't enough. Amid those free passes, she still went 3-for-4 in those games and drove in three runs.
Kelsey Stevens, Oklahoma: A first taste of the Red River Rivalry earns Oklahoma's ace a repeat appearance on this list. The sophomore transfer started all three games against Texas and pitched the Sooners to a series win that puts another Big 12 regular-season title within their grasp. Stevens wasn't perfect, taking the loss in a run-rule defeat in the middle game of the series, but she allowed just one earned run, six hits and one walk in 12 innings in her two wins. The Longhorns entered the series ranked seventh in the nation in both slugging percentage and on-base percentage and hadn't been shut out before Stevens did it to them in the finale.
Stephanie Tofft, Florida: Tofft went deep in the heart of Texas as Florida visited the state for the first time ever in conference play. The Gators scored 30 runs in a three-game sweep against Texas A&M, and Tofft was responsible for quite a few of them. The senior third baseman hit a home run in each of the three games in College Station and drove in a total of 10 runs. She went 7-for-10 at the plate with a walk and bumped her batting average from .296 to .326 in a single weekend. Her first home run gave the Gators a lead in the top of the first in the opener, and they never looked back.
Michaela Transue, Hofstra: It's not always how many numbers you put up, but when you put them up. And when you're talking about a team trying to burnish its NCAA tournament at-large credentials, should it need to go that route, a midweek series against LSU is a heck of a time to hit your first two career home runs. That's what Transue did last week, going deep in each game of a split against the Tigers. The freshman's three-run home run in the sixth inning of the second game erased a 3-2 deficit and secured the win for the Pride. She also drove in two runs in a weekend sweep of Delaware.
Kristen Wood, Northwestern: How many teams deprived of their presumed No. 1 pitcher for most of the season are 16 games above .500? It's a short list, but it includes Northwestern, for which Wood deserves no small degree of credit. The sophomore had the best week of her career, going 3-0 for the Wildcats by allowing two earned runs and seven hits in 18 innings and striking out 33. She started the role with a five-inning no-hitter against Loyola and continued it with a pair of weekend wins against Indiana. Northwestern misses Amy Letourneau, but Wood has softened the blow.