Dominant pitching carries softball to weekend sweep

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 23, 2014

The Michigan softball team had already shown flashes of greatness, with mercy-rule victories and strong pitching performances highlighting the first two weekends of the season. But what the Wolverines hadn’t yet done was put together a weekend of complete dominance.

That changed this weekend.

The sixth-ranked Wolverines went 5-0 in three days at the FAU Kickoff tournament in Boca Raton, Fla., picking up wins over Kent State, Pittsburgh, Florida Atlantic and No. 5 Kentucky and showing off their versatility in the process.

Friday, Michigan’s bats were overpowering. Sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero got the action started with a one-out RBI single in the first inning against Kent State, and her teammates didn’t let off the gas pedal for the rest of the day. The Wolverines posted seven runs against the Golden Flashes (6-4) and nine more against Pittsburgh in the second half of the double header.

Sophomore left fielder Sierra Lawrence went 3-for-4 against Kent State with three RBI, and Romero went 1-for-1 after being pitched around for most of the game, drawing two walks and adding a sacrifice fly.

Later in the day, against the Panthers (7-7), senior right fielder Nicole Sappingfield took her turn as sparkplug.

Up by two with two outs in the second inning, Sappingfield stepped to the plate with runners at second and third and knocked one over the right-field fence. The home run ignited a seven-run inning, all her team needed to cruise to a 9-0 victory.

“We definitely got in a rhythm,” Sappingfield said. “We kind of realized what we can do and what potential we have. We just really relaxed and played our game.”

The hitting clinic put on by Michigan (12-2) on Friday overshadowed dominant pitching performances by freshman right-handed pitcher Megan Betsa and junior lefty Haylie Wagner, but the pitchers quickly became the team’s focal point Saturday.

That morning, Michigan sent Wagner back into the circle in its matchup with No. 5 Kentucky.

The southpaw was nearly flawless in the outing, giving up just two hits and striking out five with no walks in a 3-0 victory.

“(Wagner) has been one-pitch focused,” Hutchins said. “She’s throwing relaxed and not trying too hard. She’s pitching with confidence and got better from Friday to Saturday.”

But the Wolverines’ pitching prowess didn’t stop with just Wagner. Junior right-handed pitcher Sara Driesenga bounced back from a pair of uncharacteristic outings the week before — she gave up six runs to Louisiana Lafayette and five to Boston College — to throw the first seven innings of an extra-innings rematch against the Golden Flashes Saturday afternoon.

After trading zeros on the scoreboard all afternoon, Michigan finally broke through in the bottom of the ninth. With Sierra Romero placed on second to start the inning — an extra-innings rule in college softball — Lawrence walked before junior catcher Lauren Sweet grounded out to advance the runners with Sappingfield coming up. The senior delivered once again, lacing a walk-off single down the right-field line.

Driesenga held Kent State to four hits and no walks before yielding to Wagner, who ultimately came away with the win after pitching the game’s final two innings. Between the two games, Driesenga and Wagner combined to pitch 16 scoreless innings, giving up just six hits while striking out 12.

“We feed off of each others’ games,” Wagner said. “We just trust each other and believe we can get the job done. We’ve got three great pitchers, and that really pushes us forward.”

Against Florida Atlantic (7-7) on Sunday, the narrative was much the same. Betsa got the nod in the circle and didn’t disappoint, striking out 11 in a complete-game shutout — the Wolverines’ fourth in a row. Any other result would’ve likely meant a loss, as the Michigan offense mustered just three hits and scored its lone run on a bases-loaded walk by Sweet.

“The pitchers really did their part,” Hutchins said. “They didn’t get caught up in the circumstances they didn’t control, which was our offensive production. They can only keep us in the game with our defense and their pitching. And I thought all three did a nice job with that.”

Most games, the Wolverines won’t need their pitchers to post straight zeroes. Still, the type of poise Michigan displayed in the circle this weekend is a coveted commodity — one that separates teams that are just talented from those that are truly dominant.