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Previewing the NCAA Softball Super Regionals: Missouri at Michigan

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Mizzou dominated the Columbia regional in a way rarely seen before. Their reward: A date with a team that beat them 13-0 earlier this season. Let's look at the Michigan Wolverines.

Amidst a flurry of off-field distractions, Mizzou raced to dominant run-rule victories in their regional last weekend, besting BYU once, then Nebraska twice in order to claim an 11th overall Super Regional berth, and their 8th under Coach Ehren Earleywine. For their hard work, the Tigers now have the chance to face the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan, led by 3-time POY finalist Sierra Romero, defeated Mizzou early in the year by the count of 13-0. But as in any sport, the postseason is a different beast. Let's take a peek at what the Tigers have to look forward to.

Overall

Michigan finished the year 49-5, but failed to take the Big Ten tournament title after losing to Minnesota (who lost in the Seattle [Washington Huskies] regional). Their other four losses were to #1 Florida (8-0, 5 innings), #9 Washington (6-5), Northwestern (13-12), and Nebraska (1-0). Their conference record was 21-2; 14 of those wins were by run rule. Whether you read that as an endorsement of Michigan or an indictment of the Big Ten, it remains an impressive feat.

The Wolverines also sport a very seasoned team. Of their top 10 players (8 fielders, 2 pitchers), 8 are upperclassmen - 4 seniors and 4 juniors - and none are freshmen.

At the Plate

Let me set the scene: Mizzou, you might have heard, is smack dab in the middle of one of their finest offensive seasons in program history. They are collectively, as of this writing, batting a balmy .328. Reaching base at a splendid .420 clip. Slugging a wonderful .514.

To all of which Michigan could rightly respond with a dismissive wave of the hand. They are batting .356, getting on at .468, and slugging .618. In two fewer games, Michigan has piled on 66 more runs than Mizzou. They rank 3rd in the nation in team BA, HR/game, and slugging %. They are 1st in OBP. These are the numbers of nightmares for opposing pitchers.

The catalyst is all-world 2B Sierra Romero. She slashes .470(!)/.588/.934 with 19 HR and 77 RBI. She's also 16/17 on SB on the season. She is backed up by a cadre of high performing bats: Sierra Lawrence (.443, 11 HR, 20 SB), Tera Blanco (.413, 12 HR, 62 RBI),  Abby Ramirez (.380, 27 walks to only 7 strikeouts), Kelsey Susalla (.351, 11 HR, 54 RBI). All told 8 regulars hit over .300 and only 1 of those has more strikeouts than walks. As a team, they show tremendous patience at the plate, walking 256 times while striking out only 139 times.

In the Field

The Wolverines are almost as adept fielding as hitting. Their .978 fielding % ranks 4th in the nation and they've only allowed 22 runs all season. Speed may do what speed do, but it'll be tough to rattle this group on the basepaths.

In the Circle

Michigan sports a pretty strict two-woman pitching staff, in basically a 1A/1B format. The 1A would be sophomore Megan Betsa, who has the most IP on the season with 172. She has 17 complete games in 29 starts, and carries an impressive 1.87 ERA. Opponents hit .150 off Betsa this season, and she managed 278 strikeouts to only 96 walks. She did allow the occasional long ball (12) and gave away a few additional free baserunners (16 HBP) and potential extra bases (20 WP). Betsa was the pitcher in Michigan's early season dousing of Mizzou, a game in which she threw all 5 innings, giving up 3 hits and 4 walks while striking out 7 and had the benefit of watching Mizzou runners thrown out at home in each of the first two innings.

The 1B of the pair is Sara Driesenga, who comes into the Super Regional with a 2.10 ERA and an OBA of .227 (cool number!). Driesenga is not nearly the strikeout artist that Betsa is (97 K) but exhibits much better control (40 walks, 5 WP, 4 HBP). Not surprisingly, given the increased balls in play, Driesenga was hurt more often by unearned runs of the two.

Mizzou

I won't go into great detail about Mizzou's team; if you've been following at all you already know the names, and you may even know enough to fill out the lineup card come Saturday afternoon. The only real roster question at this point - barring late injuries - will be whether Regan Nash or Natalie Fleming gets the start in LF. Given her performance in the regional round, I have to think the edge goes to Nash.

Outside of the core effort to make it back to the WCWS, Mizzou players do, however, have a number of statistical storylines to chase this weekend. Here's a list for those who like to follow along:

  • If the season ended today, all three of Mizzou's seniors - Sami Fagan, Emily Crane, and Taylor Gadbois - would finish with batting averages in the all-time Mizzou single-season top 10. Fagan is currently in 3rd with a chance a 2nd, and Crane is in 5th with a reasonable chance to finish as high as 3rd.
  • Emily Crane is also pursuing the single-season slugging % record for Mizzou, with her .829 a solid 17 points in front the previous high (Jen Bruck, 2005).
  • Taylor Gadbois will never catch Rhea Taylor in total stolen bases, but Gadbois' 54 on the season is only 3 behind Rhea's record 57.
  • Crane's game ending #BombCity against Nebraska during the regional was her 17th on the season. That puts her in a tie with Micaela Minner (2005) for the 2nd best single-season in Mizzou history. While Crane may well claim the second spot to herself, Amanda Renth's team record 20 is probably safe.
  • Once again to Emily Crane, as the team's great offensive output has put her into a tie with the legendary Rhea Taylor with 64 runs scored on the year (Taylor achieved that figure in both 2008 and 2010). Odds are fairly high that Crane sets this one. Also on the top ten list this season, Sami Fagan, whose 58 ties her own 2015 total for 5th place in Mizzou history.
  • Two players are still hopeful to challenge their teammate's record in RBI. Sami Fagan set the single-season record with 66 just last year. Emily Crane currently sits at 61 while Chloe Rathburn has 58. Given the ability of both players to have big games, that's a record still in play.
  • Finally, there's the walks record. Sami Fagan is currently in a tie for 2nd place (Nicole Hudson, 2013). The all-time leader? Jenna Marston, who walked 46 times in 2012.

Care to look at more Mizzou information? Try checking the Mizzou Game Day guide, provided for free on mutigers.com.

Prediction

I don't want to predict the outcome. Or maybe I just don't want to say it out loud. But the simple fact is that, while Mizzou is playing spectacular softball, this Wolverine team is probably too much to handle. I think Mizzou loses two games without notching a victory in Ann Arbor. I do think they'll be competitive, and there's certainly a chance that they emerge ready to challenge the softball world. But in a series that's going to rely so heavily on the ability of pitchers to keep great offenses at bay, I have to think that the team that has both the better offense and the better pitching is going to ultimately walk away the winner.

Fan switzy, of course, thinks that nothing can stop the Mizzou train, and expects all sorts of great articles about perseverance and strength and whatnot come the first part of next week. Let's all root for that, shall we? MIZ!