For a moment on Saturday, the Michigan softball team saw all that could go wrong as the result of a young pitching staff. Fortunately, that moment didn’t last long.
In a three-game series against Indiana, the 20th-ranked Wolverines (5-1 Big Ten, 21-10 overall) struggled on the mound in their split of the first two games but rebounded nicely in a 7-2 victory in the finale.
In Saturday’s first game, freshman left-hander Haylie Wagner allowed two earned runs, prompting freshman right-hander Sara Driesenga to come in for relief and close the game.
“My pitches felt kind of flat,” Wagner said.
But Driesenga felt just the opposite.
“My drop ball was working really well,” Driesenga said.
The second game saw the appearance of more than two pitchers in a single game for the first time since March, as Driesenga allowed three runs and Wagner allowed three more.
“We were all upset that we lost that game, and (Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) said that we didn’t deserve to win that game,” Diresenga said. “We just need to do our part, and we didn’t do it.”
Sunday had a completely different outcome, though, as Wagner didn’t allow an earned run in seven innings.
“I came into that game knowing yesterday was yesterday, and it was a new day and a new game,” Wagner said. “It was a day of coming out and being ready to show my coaches and my team that I can be ‘that’ pitcher and I can jump back from something like that.”
Over the weekend, Wagner and Driesenga acted like veterans capable of overcoming challenges and coming back stronger at times. Though Michigan relies on more than pitching to win games, Wagner and Driesenga collectively showed how integral they are to the rest of the team. After the offense (fifth in the Big Ten), combined for five runs on Saturday, the pitching staff was forced to step up and control Indiana.
Saturday’s games featured a newly formed pattern, in which Driesenga relieved Wagner and vice versa. Driesenga and Wagner have pitched out of the bullpen for much of the season. Often times, Hutchins uses one to stop opponents from building momentum off the other.
“That’s what we do for each other,” Wagner said. “We know that if one of us gets in a tough situation, then we can come back and fix it for each other.”
Added Driesenga: “We’re both confident in each other. We both want to finish for ourselves, but it’s good to have the ability to depend on somebody else too.”
Though the Wolverines worked primarily with two pitchers last year as well, they will still need to be concerned about the number of innings the freshmen rack up. Wagner and Driesenga have combined for 204 innings pitched through Sunday and will likely pitch close to 400 by season’s end. Former Wolverine Jordan Taylor and senior Stephanie Speierman combined for 364 innings by the end last year’s NCAA Super Regional run.
For Driesenga, though, pain hasn’t been issue.
“I feel fine,” Driesenga said. “There’s no soreness at all. Really, we throw to avoid (soreness) and stay loose.”
Rotating the young pitchers keeps them from remaining stiff during the season. Hutchins and pitching coach Jennifer Brundage make sure each one of the freshmen sees enough innings in order to help them stay consistent with their command.
Wagner and Driesenga will continue working on consistency and maintaining the “one pitch at a time” mindset that has been preached to them all season. Driesenga described her season as taking “two steps forward and one step back,” and the process of being consistent will likely remain like that for the season.
“It’s about each pitch separately,” Driesenga said. “You go about it as if each pitch is your last pitch, and then as soon as that pitch is over, walk back to the end of the circle and take a deep breath.”
Balancing inexperience with a high level of performance has been a challenge for Hutchins this season, but like her, the pitchers have noted that winning will be a team effort.
“I knew, even though I wasn’t throwing my best and that nothing was working as well as I wanted it to, that I had my defense to back me up,” Wagner said.
As always, Wagner and Driesenga will be excited to jump back into action this weekend and work past an up-and-down weekend. But don’t tell them they’re going back out to prove something.
“We don’t really have to prove anything,” Driesenga said. “(The media) always says you’re expected to win, but really, we can’t see it like we’re expected to win. We just need to focus on ourselves and play our game.”