Super regionals: Five things to know
Five things to know from Thursday
The Big Ten can hold its head high after the first day of super regionals, although Nebraska can be forgiven if the only place it wants its head is squarely on a pillow.
Unseeded Michigan routed No. 8 Florida State to begin the day, while unseeded Nebraska pushed No. 2 Alabama to the limit in a 12-inning game that took nearly five hours to complete. Oregon, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, must wonder what No. 16 Minnesota has in store for it when those teams meet Saturday.
1.Hail to the victors
Michigan looked the part of the nation's third-ranked team in Thursday's 17-3 win at Florida State. The 17 runs are the most ever in a super regional. Never mind that it has been a month since the Wolverines actually held that ranking.
A team in something close to free fall over the final weeks of the regular season, when Nebraska swiped a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, Michigan tumbled from the top three in the polls and out of the seeding in the NCAA tournament. Which means a team that was one of the championship contenders for much of the season now also has the curious distinction of being the fifth unseeded team to ever beat a seeded team in the opening game of a super regional.
From underachievers to unstoppable.
Michigan got quality innings out of the bullpen from freshman Megan Betsa, no small matter given that pitching played a big part in the late-season struggles, but the story of the turnaround is one written with bats.
One loss from elimination when they woke up Sunday, the Wolverines have scored 26 runs in three subsequent games, the first 17 of those runs on the ledgers of Arizona State's Dallas Escobedo and Florida State's Lacey Waldrop, pitchers among the final 10 players in the running for USA Softball Player of the Year.
How prolific were the Wolverines on Thursday? They scored more runs in six innings than all but one team scored in an entire super regional the past three seasons.
The production in the three most recent games includes 22 hits from the top five batters in the lineup: Lyndsay Doyle, Nicole Sappingfield, Sierra Romero, Caitlin Blanchard and Sierra Lawrence. Those five combined to go 9-for-19 with eight RBIs against Florida State. Romero wasn't retired in five plate appearances, totaling two hits and three walks, while Lawrence followed two home runs in the clincher against Arizona State with three hits and two more RBIs in this game.
Has Michigan solved all its problems? It doesn't really matter if the Wolverines keep crossing the plate this often.
2. That said, Michigan doesn't do anything the easy way in super regionals.
Fittingly for a program that ushered in a new era by winning a title in 2005, the first tournament to feature the new round, Michigan has mastered super regional drama. The Wolverines have been involved in five super regionals that went the maximum three games (nearly a fifth of the total number of super regionals to go the distance).
They were the first team to lose a super regional game and win a national championship in the same season.
They were the first team to squander a Game 1 win at home, thanks to Virginia Tech's Angela Tincher in 2008.
They nearly became the first team to do the above a second time, winning the first game against Louisiana-Lafayette a season ago before losing the second game and trailing in the fifth inning of the winner-take-all third game.
3. Don't count out Lacey Waldrop and Florida State
Florida State's ace was named one of three finalists for USA Softball Player of the year earlier this week, a fitting honor for a pitcher who entered the super regional against Michigan with a 36-4 record and 0.90 ERA and who was every bit as good as those numbers in last week's Tallahassee regional.
She wasn't as good as them against Michigan.
It was a rough night. Her pitches piled up as the Wolverines got some solid hits, some seeing-eye hits and a whole bunch of walks -- more of the last than the All-American in the circle had allowed in any game this season. It wasn't vintage Waldrop.
It happens. Really.
Only seven teams lost Game 1 at home and still came back to win a super regional. It's a small number but not walk-on-the-moon small. More like climb-Everest small. And one thing all seven teams had in common was a brilliant ace.
Here's the list: Dallas Escobedo, Arizona State (2012); Sara Nevins, South Florida (2012); Kelsi Dunne, Alabama (2011); Danielle Lawrie, Washington (2010); Eileen Canney, Northwestern (2006); Brianne McGowan, Oregon State (2006); Jelly Selden, UCLA (2005).
As softball fans will recognize, that's a list without a weak link, some of the best college pitchers of the past decade.
In some cases, those pitchers were tough-luck losers in Game 1. But Escobedo (6 2/3 IP, 12 H, 6 ER), Nevins (7 1/3 IP, 7 H, 6 BB), Lawrie (5 IP, 7 H, 5 ER) endured out-of-character performances. In all cases, they pitched brilliantly the next day, sometimes with some help from a quality No. 2 pitcher, or in Lawrie's case, all by herself. The final score was unprecedented Thursday, but Waldrop's abbreviated performance was only part of the damage.
The odds aren't in her favor, but neither is she tasked with doing the impossible. She's good enough to make that list.
4. Long time coming for Crimson Tide
That actually isn't in reference to the 12 innings Alabama and Nebraska played Thursday night and Friday morning, although the marathon that played out in Tuscaloosa tied for the longest super regional game on record.
Then again, compared to the 15-inning epic Nebraska played against Florida a season ago in the World Series, the opening game of the Tuscaloosa super regional was almost a sprint by comparison.
No, the long wait for Alabama was the wait to scrape together an aesthetically iffy but oh-so sweet win this time of year. Alabama hasn't missed a super regional since the round was instituted, but Peyton Grantham, Sydney Littlejohn and Marisa Runyon were in fifth grade the last time the Crimson Tide won a super regional game in which they allowed four or more runs. Thursday into Friday, those three freshmen produced just that kind of result.
If Alabama is going to win another national championship, it's going to come with major contributions from Jaclyn Traina, Kaila Hunt and the rest of the proven veteran producers. It's going to need to win some games 10-1 or 1-0. But Thursday, in a game in which Traina wasn't sharp before she was lifted and in which the Tide left runner after runner after runner on base and the middle of the order struggled, Runyon came through with the home run in the bottom of the seventh to tie the game at 5-5, Grantham hit the walk-off winner in the bottom of the 12th inning, and Littlejohn kept giving her teammates chances inning after inning after inning.
The previous two teams to win super regional games that went at least 11 innings ended up losing the series, Missouri against LSU and Hofstra against South Florida in 2012, but Alabama will take its chances with that bit of history. Alabama struggled in these games a season ago. They struggled this time, too. But they won.
5. Lauren Chamberlain ready in Norman
Lauren Chamberlain's brief career does not lack for indelible images, but none lingers quite like her trip around the bases after hitting a walk-off home run against Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe in the bottom of the 12th inning in the first game of the Women's College World Series championship series a season ago.
The emotion propelled the game's best power hitter around the bases at something closer to a sprint than a trot.
She probably could have floated her way from base to base.
The steps may be more labored as she and Renfroe renew acquaintances in Friday's opening game of the Norman super regional (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), but it's not yet clear that makes Oklahoma's junior noticeably less dangerous.
Playing with a partially torn PCL she sustained in the final week of the regular season, Chamberlain went 3-for-10 with two home runs and three RBIs in two games against Texas A&M in last week's regional (she sat out the regional opener against Bryant). Thursday she was front and center as one of two Oklahoma players to take questions from the media and spoke about her schedule leading up to this series against the Lady Vols.
"Just a lot of rehab, continuing with my rehab," Chamberlain said. "It's getting [more aggressive] rehab day by day, preparing me for the field. So just being smart about how I'm using my body out on the field and what my time goes to."
The injury is to Chamberlain's back leg when she hits, which might suggest a more front-loaded swing, but Tennessee co-coach Karen Weekly said she didn't see much of a difference in the All-American's approach on film.
"Lauren's a great hitter, and that's why she's in there even with an injury," Weekly said. "She's a competitor, she loves to play, she wants to win, she wants to do it for her team. I had an opportunity to coach Lauren with Team USA a couple of summers ago, and I got to see that first hand being on the same side of the field with her. I think Patty Gasso said it in an interview, a one-legged Lauren Chamberlain is better than most players out there.
"And I think she's right."