Breakdown: Tempe Regional

Ruby Wallau/Daily
Buy this photo

By Jake Lourim, Summer Managing Sports Editor
Published May 16, 2014

Things got interesting very quickly for the Michigan softball team.

Less than a month ago, the Wolverines were in the middle of a 20-game win streak and were crushing every opponent in sight. They were a fixture in the top five of the coaches poll and seemed to have the Big Ten title in the bag. They were in prime position for a second straight Women’s College World Series run.

Now, they’re playing the regional round of the NCAA Tournament in Tempe, Ariz., with a better than even chance historically of being eliminated this weekend.

In the past seven years, five No. 9 seeds have won their regional. With Arizona State (15-7-1 Pac-12, 44-10-1 overall) in that position, Michigan has a tough road ahead, starting with Friday’s 3:30 p.m. game against San Diego State.

This weekend is a double-elimination pool that also includes Ivy League champion Dartmouth, which will play Arizona State at 6 p.m. Friday.

The Daily breaks down the three teams Michigan could see this weekend:

ARIZONA STATE: The Sun Devils are the favorite to win the regional after finishing third in the brutal Pac-12.

Their lineup includes six regulars who hit above .300 and four with at least 10 home runs. They sacrifice a bit to Michigan in batting average but make up for it with power.

But the player the Wolverines should be worried about is right-handed pitcher Dallas Escobedo. When the two teams played on March 6 in Fullerton, Calif., Escobedo mowed down Michigan better than any other team this season. A hit batter in the fifth and single in the sixth were the only runners on base, and Escobedo didn’t walk anybody in a 2-0 win.

She finished 22-7 with a 1.85 earned-run average. If that isn’t enough, Arizona State also has right-hander Mackenzie Popescue, who is 20-3 with a 2.15 ERA.

If Michigan and Arizona State both win or both lose Friday, they’ll play each other on Saturday. The Sun Devils will likely try to send Escobedo to the circle against the Wolverines again, and Michigan will have to have a better answer this time around.

SAN DIEGO STATE: For now, Michigan is focused on preparing for its opener against San Diego State, and the one thing that sticks out is left-handed pitcher Danielle O’Toole.

O’Toole finished 30-8 with a 1.66 ERA and dominated the innings workload for the Aztecs. She will try to change speeds often to keep the Wolverines off balance.

Michigan will counter with a seasoned lineup that features three seniors and the Big Ten Player of the Year in sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero in the top four hitters. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said this week that the off-speed mix will be unlike many pitchers the Wolverines have seen, so Michigan will have to be better with adjusting in-game to the pitcher.

At the plate, the Aztecs have a balanced lineup that ranges in batting average from the top hitter to the ninth-best hitter by only 82 points. For the most part, the Wolverines have opened weekend series with junior left-hander Haylie Wagner, who could be a tough matchup for a San Diego State lineup loaded with left-handed hitters.

DARTMOUTH: The Big Green (31-17) are the clear underdog in the regional but rolled through the Ivy League with an 18-2 record. They played just two NCAA Tournament teams this season — James Madison and Boston University — and split those games.

Dartmouth’s lineup includes just four hitters who bat above .300, but they do boast a strong pitcher in left-hander Kristen Rumley (18-7, 1.86 ERA).

A strong showing from Rumley is the Big Green’s only shot against Arizona State on Friday.