Driesenga rebounds to send Wolverines to WCWS

Terra Molengraff/Daily
Sophomore pitcher Sara Driesenga (10) during the game against Louisiana on Saturday at Wilpon Complex. Buy this photo

By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 25, 2013

Sara Driesenga had three minutes.

Just an hour before, the Michigan softball team’s dominance at Alumni Field had come to an abrupt halt when Louisiana-Lafayette unloaded on Driesenga to win 5-0 and force a deciding third game in the Super Regional on Saturday afternoon. The right-handed pitcher had also faltered the night before, surrendering two home runs and allowing the Ragin’ Cajuns to take an extra-inning lead in the series’ first contest. With the season riding on Game 3, the Hudsonville, Mich. native wasn’t slated to start — or play, for that matter.

No. 8 Michigan (20-2 Big Ten, 50-11 overall) struggled all day to connect against pitcher Jordan Wallace, who mixed riseballs and sinkers to perfection as she took a no-hitter into the fifth inning in Game 2. The ULL right-hander struck out 11 in the day’s first contest as she held the nation’s second-best scoring offense scoreless for the first time of the year.

Thanks to excellent fielding by Michigan, sophomore pitcher Haylie Wagner also kept the Ragin’ Cajuns’ seventh-ranked offense (47-14) scoreless through three innings. With one out in the first frame, Lafayette slapped two hardly-hit line drives to put runners on first and second. The next batter smashed a laser that looked destined for center field, but Wagner raised her glove and instinctively snagged it. The left-hander then turned and fired to first base to complete the double play.

The next time the Ragin’ Cajuns came up to bat, a trifecta of Web Gem-worthy plays kept the visitors off the scoreboard. First, senior third baseman Amy Knapp handled a difficult hop to field a sharp ground ball and fired a strike to first to beat the runner by a step. Then, senior second baseman Ashley Lane chased down a pop fly in foul territory and stretched her body to record the second out. Wagner and the Wolverines escaped the inning unscathed when junior right fielder Nicole Sappingfield ran into the outfield wall while hanging on to a deep fly ball.

Yet when Driesenga entered in relief of Wagner in the fourth, there was nothing Michigan’s fielders could do. The right-hander allowed two home runs as Lafayette took a three-run lead, and the Ragin’ Cajuns eventually added two more runs — one on a solo shot — to extend the lead to five.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins was visibly frustrated, visiting Driesenga on the mound and declining the customary in-game interview with ESPN. The Wolverines’ ace was rattled, and Wagner was penciled in as the Game 3 starter when the veteran coach submitted the lineup card 30 minutes before the first pitch.

“She’s had great moments and she’s had tough moments,” Hutchins said. “But you don’t get better without tough moments and she had a tough moment in Game 2 today.”

As they normally do, both pitchers warmed up together before the game. But as Wagner — 2012’s Big Ten Pitcher of the Year — finished her warmup tosses, she pulled a muscle in her shoulder. Three minutes before Michigan’s biggest game of the season, Driesenga learned she would take to the circle against the lineup that had terrorized her all weekend.

“I just had to forget about it,” Driesenga said. “I didn’t have a choice not to forget about it, I had to do it for the team. We weren’t sure if Haylie was going to be ready or not so I had no choice. I had to go right at them and keep us in the game.”

The time continued to tick. Michigan pitching coach Jennifer Brundage ran to Driesenga, pulled her close and delivered quick words of advice.

And Driesenga responded. The sophomore pitched the complete game, scattering just four hits and a walk across the seven innings while striking out seven. She allowed no earned runs — an error helped Lafayette take a one-run lead in the fourth — and slammed the door by inducing a weak ground ball on her 120th pitch of the game and 180th of the day.

“I just went up there — no fear — just going for it because that’s all I could do,” Driesenga said. “I had nothing to lose, so I just went for it.”

After her heavy workload in the first two games of the Super Regional, Driesenga was far from perfect. But, like Wagner in Game 2, she got plenty of help from her teammates. In the fifth inning, when Lafayette center fielder Brianna Cherry singled to left field, freshman Sierra Lawrence’s strong throw to catcher Lauren Sweet forced Louisiana-Lafayette coach Michael Lotief to hold a runner at third. Then, with the bases loaded and catcher Sarah Draheim at the plate, freshman shortstop Sierra Romero leaped to snare a line drive and end the inning.

“I just went with the same approach, again, just 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 we’d have no success either.”

Still, after five innings, the Wolverines trailed by one.

Finally, Michigan’s offense came through. Romero was hit by a pitch, Blanchard advanced her to third with a single to right field and Lane lined a two-run double to give Michigan its first lead of the day, 2-1. It was all that Driesenga needed. She retired the next six batters in order to send the Wolverines to the program’s 10th Women’s College World Series, and the pitcher who had just three minutes to prepare for Game 3 of a Super Regional was mobbed by her teammates in celebration.

But she had all game to prepare for that.