Practice is almost over at Oosterbaan Field House on March 12, Michigan’s first since a nine-day spring break trip in California. After three days off, the energy is palpable. Softball is not known for its fast-paced nature, but today, after a tough 3-4 stretch out West, chatter fills the building.
One half of the Wolverines’ junior pitching duo is on the makeshift mound, the other practicing in the batting cage. Junior right-hander Sara Driesenga pitches in the circle while junior left-hander Haylie Wagner waits on the first-base line. They are taking turns in a full-count drill with the bases loaded, a drill designed to mimic late-game pressure.
With Wagner looking on from the first-base line, Driesenga gets a strikeout, sending Wagner out to the mound while Driesenga gets some quick advice.
Wagner gets the sign, then delivers. She snags a line drive up the middle and throws it home. A moment later, she catches senior leadoff hitter Lyndsay Doyle with an off-speed pitch.
This year, freshman Megan Betsa has been thrown into the mix and has been strong, starting 6-3 with a 2.27 ERA. Still, as the Wolverines get deep into Big Ten season, one of the experienced juniors will likely get the nod for postseason play.
In the meantime, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins isn’t shy about dividing the load.
“I don’t really care who plays,” Hutchins said. “I don’t care who pitches. When you’re in there, I want you to do your part and do your best. And there’s nothing that would be better than to have all three of them on all cylinders at that time. We certainly need at least one of them to be, but the more pitchers you have ready to go, the better your arsenal.”
As the Wolverines (19-6) head into the Big Ten season this weekend, Wagner is on a roll. Driesenga’s ERA has dropped, thanks in part to three scoreless innings in two relief appearances last weekend.
Each pitcher’s high has been the other’s low. Each has had her worst year during the other’s best. Each has shown signs of greatness in her career. Many national champions have one great pitcher. Will one emerge, or will two?
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More than eight months had passed since Driesenga last pitched in a game, but in the season opener on Feb. 8, she played like she was still standing on the mound in Oklahoma City.
Through six innings, the junior had a two-hit shutout and showed no signs of slowing down. Paced by sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero’s grand slam, Driesenga took a 4-0 lead to the seventh against No. 5 Florida.
But then things changed, and they haven’t been the same since.
Driesenga gave up four runs in the seventh before giving the Gators the lead in the eighth. Wagner came in briefly in the eighth and gave up a two-run home run.
Since then, Wagner has given up just eight earned runs in 74.1 innings, while Driesenga has surrendered 16 in 34.1, never again replicating the form she had in the season opener. She is 0-3 with a 3.19 ERA and three saves in 11 appearances.
Driesenga said she hasn’t made any major mechanical changes in her delivery — after all, nine months ago, she was pitching on college softball’s biggest stage.
“Confidence is a huge thing, just going into every game remembering that I can do it,” Driesenga said. “I’m playing for a reason, for my teammates surrounding me and everyone right next to me.”
Three scoreless innings last weekend were a step in the right direction, but Hutchins hasn’t decided on a distribution of innings going forward.
In her second campaign, Driesenga owned the circle, while Wagner sat out the first part of the season with a back injury. She went 31-9 with a 1.89 ERA and led the team all the way to the Women’s College World Series, after finishing with a losing record in her freshman year.
With only half of the season over, Driesenga still believes she can regain the form that earned her seven postseason wins in 2013.
On goes the competition, which — at least in practice — remains friendly.
“We want each other to do well,” Driesenga said. “That doesn’t mean I want the ball any less.”
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A product of Orange, Calif., Wagner immediately earned a stronghold in the circle in her freshman year. She set the school record with 50 appearances — a record that lasted all of one year until Driesenga broke it last season.
Now, Wagner is having the best stretch of her career: 13-0 in 15 appearances and a 0.93 ERA. As a freshman, she was Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, going 32-7 in 34 starts with a 1.53 ERA.
Before Wagner got the chance to continue that success last season, she suffered a back injury and missed three weeks. When she returned, she split time with Driesenga until Driesenga gained the edge in the postseason battle.
From the Big Ten Tournament to the end of the season, Driesenga pitched 70 innings to Wagner’s five.
So what’s working well this season?
“I’m just going out there and hitting my spots and working on my pitches and working on movement,” Wagner said. “I know that if I pitch the ball, I know my defense is going to be right there and be able to help me out with anything that goes their way.”
Each pitcher came into 2014 with one breakout year under her belt. This is quickly becoming Wagner’s second — among Big Ten pitchers, she ranks first in ERA by more than two tenths of a run and second in wins despite sitting at eighth in starts.
Compared to Driesenga and Betsa, Wagner likely has the slowest velocity, but makes up for it by hitting her spots.
“Everybody wants their speed a little bit higher, but I don’t really focus on that,” Wagner said. “I just focus on the movement and spin and hitting my spots and working on the little things and what’s most effective and what’s going to beat the batters.”
Added Hutchins: “She commands the zone, she throws it just enough out of the zone to get them to miss it and she attacks the hitters. You have to have command of the zone. You’ve got to be able to put the ball just off the plate, then get way ahead, then get a little bit more off the plate, and then sneak it inside on them.”
Hutchins said she still plans to divide up the innings in the near future, but she did acknowledge Wagner’s dominance.
“I would say right now Haylie Wagner is doing her part,” Hutchins said. “And I think both of the other two can do their part better.”
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Soon, it’s Driesenga back out to the mound in the drill. Before she pitches, she asks for a timeout to talk over the signs. As senior catcher Caitlin Blanchard comes out, Driesenga covers up a smile with her mitt.
So again, the competition continues, even when it seems like fun.
“I think they’ve done a good job picking each other up,” Hutchins said. “Wouldn’t that be something if they were the dynamic duo?”