To the Wolverines, it’s almost not even worth mentioning that these two teams have played before.
The Michigan softball team plays its first game in the Women’s College World Series at 7 p.m. Thursday against Alabama, a rematch of a preseason two-game set where the Wolverines took both games.
But that was back in February, a long time ago. When the two teams last squared off in the Easton Bama Bash in Tuscaloosa, there was still snow on Alumni field.
“We just have to look at (the Alabama matchup) as a new game against a new team,” said senior catcher Lauren Sweet. “They could have completely changed. Their pitchers could have gotten 10 times better, their hitters could have gotten better, and so have we. We have to be confident in ourselves and play our game.”
But, the Wolverines did get a look at Crimson Tide pitcher Alexis Osorio in the second of those two games back in February, and she got a look at them.
Osorio gave up two home runs in the third inning to give Michigan its second win over Alabama on the season, 4-1. Now, that game seems like just one win out of many, but at the time it was significant for the Wolverines.
“I think it really started clicking when we were at Alabama,” said sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa. “We started realizing, ‘Hey, we’re a really good team. We have really good chemistry, and that’s something that (Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) preaches about from the very first meeting.”
Since that realization, Michigan has swept the Big Ten Championships and won every postseason game along the way to get to the WCWS. Alabama, a member of the competitive SEC, does not have the conference championships to boast, and they dropped the first game of their Super Regional series to No. 11 Oklahoma before punching their own Ticket to the series.
Osorio threw 241 pitches in last Saturday’s doubleheader against the Sooners. The Crimson Tide weren’t certain they’d have a spot reserved in Oklahoma City until the sixth inning of the forced game three when Infielder Marissa Runyon hit a grand slam that allowed Alabama to take the lead for good.
The Crimson Tide and the Wolverines took different paths to their round one WCWS matchup, but Michigan isn’t going to underestimate its opponent.
“(Alabama) is a great team,” said junior second baseman Sierra Romero. “They’re a great hitting team, and they have a great pitching staff as well. It’s going to be a good game, and we expect every game in the World Series to be a good game because it’s the top-eight teams in the nation now. We’re going to take every one as if they’re the best in the nation and try to beat them.”
The Wolverines also have the added benefit of rest after wrapping up the Super Regionals in just two games before the weekend. Whether Osorio will be at all fatigued by her high pitch count remains to be seen, but with a 1.68 ERA and opposing batting average of just .166 she is definitely deserving of Michigan’s respect.
That’s why it might be helpful to look back to those early games after all.
All of the four runs Osorio allowed against Michigan, including the two home runs, came in the third inning or earlier. After that, she allowed only one hit and nothing else.
Since the postseason, and really all year long, Hutchins and the Wolverines have underlined the importance of coming out “attacking” and being aggressive with every at-bat to get on base.
“We did last well last time we saw Alabama’s pitching, but again, that has no bearing on this time,” Hutchins said. “Because Osorio is a lot better. She’s a lot closer to the zone, she’s able to nibble the zone. I was impressed watching her. She was able to keep Oklahoma off balance, and Oklahoma is a good hitting team. She was able to really hold them at bay. So I’m going to have to say that runs will be precious.”
The Wolverines will be swinging their bats out of the gate like they always do. Forty-four of the 76 runs that Michigan has scored this postseason have crossed the plate during the first three innings of the game — that puts the pressure on Osorio, assuming she gets the start in game one of the WCWS.
Hutchins assumes runs will be at a premium cost. Osorio has the talent to shut down any lineup in the country, but if she slips up early, the Wolverines could make her pay —just like in February — and it wouldn’t matter how well she pitches after that.