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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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Handing out grades for the 2014 softball season

James Coller/Daily
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By Jake Lourim, Summer Managing Sports Editor
Published June 4, 2014

The 2014 Michigan softball season opened with a 4-0 seventh-inning lead that turned into a 9-4 extra-inning loss against the eventual national champions. It closed with a walk-off home run in the deciding game of the Super Regionals.

In between, there were 22 run-rule games, 21 of which the Wolverines won and many of which could have been a lot more lopsided if Michigan wanted to run up the score.

But the season still had a flair for the dramatic.

In the end, the season ended the way it started—with a loss in the final inning. But for a large part of the season, the Wolverines dominated in every aspect of the game.

The Daily breaks down how they stacked up overall.

Offense: A

Michigan’s most effective unit this year played a large role in its success. The Wolverines were among the best nationally in every category: fifth in batting average, second in on-base percentage, ninth in scoring and 16th in slugging.

They had speed, with senior slap hitters Lyndsay Doyle and Nicole Sappingfield setting the table at the top of the lineup. They had power, with sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero and senior designated player Taylor Hasselbach leading the team in home runs. And they had depth, with freshman second baseman Abby Ramirez and junior catcher Lauren Sweet hitting .289 and .287, respectively, in the bottom third.

When teams pitched around Romero, senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard and sophomore outfielder Sierra Lawrence made them pay. While opponents tried many different methods to slow down the Wolverines, none of them was truly effective.

Even two of the best pitchers in the country, Arizona State’s Dallas Escobedo and Florida State’s Lacey Waldrop, couldn’t completely shut down Michigan. The Wolverines tagged Escobedo for five runs in an elimination game in the regional, then opened Super Regional play by scoring 17 on the Seminoles.

The unit’s highlight was early in Big Ten play against weak conference opponents, when it scored 149 runs in a 15-game stretch. Michigan lost five times in the last three weeks of the regular season, and in those losses, it scored just 13 runs. But after splitting the Big Ten title with Nebraska, the Wolverines heated up again, moving to the brink of the Women’s College World Series.

Defense: A-

Michigan’s defense made the most significant strides from last year, when it was the team’s weakest unit.

Though she committed 14 errors at shortstop, Romero made several highlight-reel plays and formed a strong double-play combo with Ramirez. Freshman Lindsay Montemarano stepped in for departed starter Amy Knapp at third base and made 105 assists at the hot corner.

Of course, the biggest highlight-reel play was the one that ended up on the highlight reel — SportsCenter’s Top 10. With two outs in the seventh inning of a decisive regional game, senior center fielder Lyndsay Doyle made a leaping catch at the wall to rob a would-be game-winning home run. She and senior right fielder Nicole Sappingfield started in right field for the fourth consecutive year.

The Wolverines finished eighth in the nation in fielding percentage and will return three full-time starters in the infield next year. Junior catcher Lauren Sweet caught 21 of 33 base stealers from behind the plate.

Pitching: B+

At times during the first half of the season, this looked like Michigan’s strongest unit. Junior left-hander Haylie Wagner kept her earned-run average under 1.00 for most of the season, returning to top form after an injury limited her down the stretch last season.

Freshman right-hander Megan Betsa overcame early confidence issues to put together a terrific freshman campaign, finishing 18-4 and winning 13 of her last 14 decisions. Junior right-hander Sara Driesenga struggled early but finished with a 2.34 ERA.

Late in the season, however, the pitching was not on the elite level it needed to be. Wagner carried the load and was solid, but in the end, she couldn’t match zeroes with Waldrop in the deciding game, a 4-2 loss. For most of the season, the Wolverines’ staff of three good pitchers was their strength: They usually started one game each weekend and kept them fresh. In the NCAA Tournament, Michigan needed one to step up and be on top of her game, and none of them truly was.

Final Grade: B

When Michigan brought back seven starters plus Driesenga, last year’s ace, from a team that went to the Women’s College World Series last year, expectations were high. For most of the season, the Wolverines lived up to them. They knocked off five ranked teams in the non-conference season and strung together a dominant 20-game win streak that put them in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten race.

But then they stumbled a few times. The losses down the stretch—including a run-rule loss to Illinois, then the Big Ten’s last-place team—forced them to share the Big Ten title with Nebraska. A loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament final shipped them off to Tempe, Ariz. for the regional round of the NCAA Tournament.

There, Michigan took care of business, winning two one-run elimination games to advance in thrilling fashion. In the Super Regionals, the Wolverines embarrassed Florida State in game one, 17-3.

But they couldn’t win either of the games the next day. Shut down by Waldrop to the tune of two runs in two games, Michigan’s season ended in Tallahassee, Fla. Though it featured many highlights, the Wolverines took a step back from last year, leaving some business unfinished in 2014.


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