The Romero Factor: How Michigan’s star shortstop turned the tide of two games

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 6, 2014

At the start of the fourth inning Sunday, the fans at Alumni Field inched forward in their chairs, almost in unison.

Usually, a none-on, none-out at-bat in the middle of a game wouldn’t cause a stir. But this one was different. This was Sierra Romero coming to the plate.

The sophomore shortstop fouled off a high fastball on the first pitch, then watched an outside pitch go past her.

Ohio State’s pitching had stymied the Michigan softball team the day before — it gave up just five hits and one run — and was on its way to more of the same on Sunday. The Wolverines had mustered only one hit in the first three innings.

Romero, who struck out in her first at-bat of the game, was just happy that Buckeye right-hander Olivia O’Reilly was throwing her strikes. The day before, O’Reilly had walked her twice to start the game.

“I get so excited when I get a strike,” Romero said. “I know I’m not going to get on every time, but it’s nice to get a chance to just swing the bat.”

She did more than just swing on the 1-1 pitch. She crushed it into the pine trees beyond the left-center fence for her 10th home run of the season.

In that one swing, the sophomore turned the game on its head, as the Wolverines poured on nine more runs in the fourth and fifth innings to earn a 10-0 mercy-rule victory.

“It was just one of those things where we needed one person to hit it hard,” said senior designated player Taylor Hasselbach, who homered three batters later. “Hitting is contagious.”

It was a clutch hit. It was a spark for a slumping offense. And it was exactly the type of play Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has grown accustomed to with Romero on the roster.

“She’s our heart and soul,” Hutchins said. “She plays with such heart and such intensity. I’d take a million of her.”

Every time the Wolverines need a big play, Romero seems to deliver — sometimes with a big hit or deep home run, other times with something intangible.

Sunday she provided the long ball. Saturday, it was the latter.

In the first inning, with two outs, Romero walked. Hutchins called for Romero to steal second base, which she did, easily.

Early in the game, the steal didn’t seem like much. But when senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard singled through the right side of the infield, Hutchins waved Romero around third base and toward the plate.

Ohio State right-fielder Caitlin Conrad got a good jump on the ball, fielded it cleanly and fired a laser to home plate, giving Buckeye catcher Taylor Watkins the ball with Romero still five feet down the base path.

It should have been an easy tag to end the inning.

But in a split second, Romero dove headfirst for the corner of the plate, beating Watkins’ tag and supplying the Wolverines with their only run of the game — the only one they would need in a 1-0 victory.

“(Diving) was actually a last-second decision,” she said. “I saw where the catcher was, and I knew if I slid feet-first, she would have more of me to tag, so I thought by diving I would limit what parts of me she could actually tag.”

Michigan’s roster, from top to bottom, is filled with talent. It has players who are heady, players who are athletic and plenty of leaders.

Romero is all of the above. Her fielding is deliberate and smooth, her base running tactful and her plate presence nearly impeccable. She’s batting .512 and gets on base in a jaw-dropping 64 percent of her plate appearances.

There’s not an easy out in the lineup, and yet Romero is fourth in the nation with 1.03 walks per game. Teams pitch around her to face Blanchard, who bats .333 and has 25 RBI.

They walk Romero so they can pitch to a player who gets a hit in one-third of her at-bats. It’s a ludicrous idea, yet it’s the right decision every time.

That’s because when Romero gets a strike, more times than not, she’s hitting it through the infield or over the outfielders — way over the outfielders.

So when she steps to the plate, the crowd perks up. It would be silly not to.