Michigan regroups, gains WCWS
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Five years to the day after it was the stage for one of the memorable pitching performances in postseason history, Alumni Field appeared ready for a revival almost nobody in a sellout crowd wanted to see.
As it turned out, a spot in the Women's College World Series did come down to a pitching performance that might linger. It's just that instead of coming from a pitcher whose name might as well have been included on the lineup card when it came off the printer, the performance came from a pitcher who didn't even know she would start until minutes before the game. It came from someone who wasn't even on the lineup card.
Five years after Virginia Tech All-American Angela Tincher beat Michigan twice in one afternoon -- still the only time an unseeded team has done that on the road in a super regional -- Michigan found itself on the wrong end of a shutout by unseeded Louisiana-Lafayette's Jordan Wallace that evened this best-of-three series. It now finds itself heading to Oklahoma City because Sara Driesenga made sure Wallace didn't get a chance to repeat history.
Roughed up by Louisiana-Lafayette in the first game of the day, Driesenga wasn't in Michigan coach Carol Hutchins' initial lineup for the winner-take-all third game set to start less than an hour later. But when fellow pitcher Haylie Wagner felt something out of sorts in her shoulder warming up, Hutchins had to make a last-second change -- so last second that she had to cede her designated player entirely just to make the pieces fit.
Driesenga responded with a four-hit, seven-strikeout gem and gave the Wolverines time to find the runs they needed for a 2-1 win and the program's 10th trip to the World Series.
For most of the season, Driesenga would have been the obvious choice to start a must-win game for the Wolverines. The sophomore entered the super regional with a 29-6 record and 1.67 ERA. The second choice behind Wagner a season ago, she emerged in her second season as a workhorse who struck out almost a batter per inning. But after 6⅔ solid innings in the super regional opener on Friday, she gave up a pair of late home runs but wa sbailed out in the end by teammate Ashley Lane's walk-off blast in the bottom of the eighth.
Wagner started Game 2 on Saturday and shut out the Ragin' Cajuns for three innings, but Hutchins brought on Driesenga in hopes of keeping opposing batters off balance.
Two of the first five batters she faced hit the ball out of the park, which generated more than enough runs for Louisiana-Lafayette on its way to a 5-0 win.
"I think Sara's twice the pitcher she was last year," Hutchins said of the sophomore who hit but didn't pitch in the super regional at Alabama last season. "And the one thing that you just have to experience is experience. She got a lot of experience this year, and it's made her better. She's had great moments, and she's had tough moments. But you don't get better without tough moments.
"She had a really tough moment in Game 2 today. In Game 3, she got better."
There wasn't much in the way of conversation about physical corrections when pitching coach Jen Brundage spoke to Driesenga in the bullpen once it became clear the latter would be back in the circle with the season on the line. The two didn't talk release points. They didn't run through the at-bats that proved so costly in the loss minutes earlier.
"It was about the mentality," Driesenga said. "She just wanted me to forget about what had happened. Hutch always tells us the most important thing in your body is your brain. That's what I needed to focus on, and I just needed to forget about it. [Brundage] had complete confidence in me that I could do it, and I just had to think about all the times that I had done it before and focus on those and visualize me getting it done."
She came out in the top of the first inning of the finale and struck out All-American Nerissa Myers on four pitches, none of the powerful shortstop's swings looking all that healthy. She shrugged off the ensuing infield single and finished the inning with another strikeout, this time hitting 68 mph to end a nine-pitch at-bat against cleanup hitter Matte Haack.
It was Haack who hit an extra-inning home run off her in Game 1 not long after missing one only after Michigan right fielder Nicole Sappingfield brought a ball destined for the first row of bleachers back into the field of play.
The pitching duel was on.
The Ragin' Cajuns broke through first. After an error by Lane on an attempted double play put Sarah Draheim at second base in the fourth inning, a two-out single from Shellie Landry was enough to get Draheim home just under the tag. But the visitors weren't able to extend the lead, either that inning or the following one, when they loaded the bases on a bunt single, an error and a hit. With the bases loaded and facing Draheim, who took her deep twice in the first game of the day, Driesenga escaped with a line drive to shortstop.
"I just went with the same approach, again, like I had been doing the entire game and went right at her," Driesenga said. "No fear. If I didn't put it all out there, then there would be no risk, and there would be no success, either."
Lane's two-out double in the bottom of the inning drove in two runs and gave Michigan its first lead in 12 innings of softball on the day.
With the eventual game-winning hit, following on the heels of her walk-off home run the previous day, Lane ensured her senior class would not be the first since the early 1990s to go without a trip to the World Series. Defeated in a super regional in five of the past seven seasons, including that memorable one against Virginia Tech, Michigan is going back to Oklahoma City.
"It's about the people in your organization," Hutchins said. "And we've had kids that represent this university, always, with class and style. And they play hard. We don't always make it; we don't always get what we want, but we bring kids here and they believe in Michigan."
Still, almost anyone in attendance had to think it might not happen again. And anyone who was around five years before had to think of Tincher, even if some wouldn't admit it.
"Never," Hutchins said with a smile when asked if Tincher's name crossed her mind as she watched Wallace pitch inning after inning. "But [Wallace] is pretty good. She definitely is. She's pretty darn good. I was very impressed with her. And she got better as the day went. She just kept getting better and better. She's going to have a great career."
Ragin' Cajuns coach Michael Lotief wouldn't talk about his sophomore ace after the game, preferring to talk only about his senior class. But as much as losing players like Brianna Cherry, Draheim and Myers ought to derail national aspirations for a Sun Belt program like ULL, it keeps winning because it keeps finding and developing talent like Wallace. In a postseason run that saw her strike out 51 batters and allow just four earned runs in 41 innings, she established herself as one of the best pitchers in the nation.
She just wasn't quite enough on this day. She wasn't quite Tincher. Not with Driesenga out to make amends.
"It doesn't matter what you did before," Driesenga said. "All that matters is now."
And as much as it felt for a time as if the clock had turned back five years, it didn't matter what happened before.