In the postseason, Driesenga emerges as Michigan’s ace

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By Erin Lennon, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 21, 2013

This was supposed to be sophomore pitcher Haylie Wagner’s stage.

Nearly four months ago, Wagner was named to the selected to the 2013 USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year preseason watch list as one of eight sophomores and the sole Big Ten player represented.

In her freshman season, Wagner won 32 games and threw 28 complete games — for the third highest winning percentage in program history — and appeared in a record-setting 50 games as a pitcher with a 1.53 ERA. Wagner was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week five times. The left-hander’s performance aided the No. 7 Michigan softball team to a regional final — in which she won all three games — and earned her Big Ten Freshman and Pitcher of the Year honors.

And with four years experience dating back to high school with sophomore catcher Lauren Sweet, Wagner was supposed to be lights-out.

But plagued by a back injury, Wagner did not make her season debut until the Wolverines’ third trip to Florida — 22 games into the season — during non-conference play. Wagner made just 27 appearances and started just 20, while allowing 11 home runs and only 80 fewer hits in half the playing time. Her ERA was a full run higher at 2.58.

A natural pick for the Big Ten first team last year, Wagner was named to the all-conference second team this year.

Enter sophomore right-hander Sara Driesenga.

An ace on nearly any other pitching staff, Driesenga was No. 2 in Michigan’s 1-2-punch in the circle during the duo’s freshman season. She started 42 games, but split time between designated hitter and pitcher. Driesenga pitched in 28 games and started 23 during the regular season with a 2.53 ERA and a 9-10 record last year.

This year, Driesenga has had more opportunities to pitch. And she's reaping the benefits.

In the absence of Wagner, Driesenga contributed her first career no-hitter and double-digit complete games. During that time, Driesenga was instructed to be a leader and, more importantly, to pitch well enough for the high-powered offense to score enough to win games.

“Like coach said, I needed to step up,” Driesenga said after her no-hitter against Hofstra on Feb. 23. “My job is to keep runners off-base. Each person has a part to play, and that’s my contribution to this team. We’re all about the win. Whether we get that or not, everybody has to do their part.”

The sophomore finished the season as one of the Wolverines’ most reliable presences on the field. Driesenga won 29 of 35 decisions with a 1.69 ERA. She recorded 221 strikeouts in 226 innings pitched, including 23 complete games and seven shutouts — a year worth a second first-team all-Big Ten honor and one that put the ball in her hand come playoffs.

Headed into the Big Ten tournament, the question of who to start in each single-game matchup was still in the air, according Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.

“Both of those girls are capable of greatness, so I expect both of them to pitch,” Hutchins said. “We don’t have a set starter. At game time, that’s who we’re going with.”

In the first inning of the Big Ten tournament semifinal against Wisconsin, Wagner allowed two runs before loading the bases. A home run to a Badger’s pinch hitter put the Wolverines in a 6-0 hole, effectively sealing a loss and an early trip home from Lincoln, Neb. Wagner was relieved by Driesenga after the first inning.

It seems it was an inning Hutchins has not yet forgotten. Wagner has not stepped on the field since.

Driesenga started all three games of the regional final last weekend, pitching 21 consecutive innings and two straight matchups with No. 18 California. The right-hander struck out 19 and threw two shutouts in the weekend en route to a super regional berth for the Wolverines.

“We battled through it and again behind the effort of Sara in particular on the mound,” Hutchins said after Sunday’s 3-1 victory over Cal. “And I didn’t think she had her best stuff, but she had her heart and that was the most important thing we needed. She was determined to get it done.”

Driesenga is expected to be the starter on Friday when the Wolverines take on No. 21 Louisiana-Laffayette in the best-of-three super regional. In her first start against the Ragin’ Cajuns, Driesenga pitched a complete game and allowed one unearned run in Michigan’s 3-1 victory. As the new-found star of the Michigan defense, Driesenga may prove the key in a potential first appearance in the Women’s College World Series since 2005.