Ann Arbor – Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins knows that invariably, a pitcher working with an edge will be a better pitcher.
With that in mind, often she finds herself walking to the mound during games to fire up Megan Betsa or Haylie Wagner. Hutchins will need them to be at the top of their games when the Women's College World Series begins Thursday in Oklahoma City.
The third-ranked Wolverines will face Alabama in the first game.
Betsa, a sophomore, is a 30-game winner and the Big Ten's Pitcher of the Year. Wagner, a senior whose shoulder injury two years ago kept her from pitching in the World Series, has won 22 games and is motivated to finish her college career on a high note.
Hutchins, who will be coaching the Wolverines in their 11th World Series appearance, has a well-rounded team, a tough, clutch-hitting group that leads the country in home runs with 115. But the Wolverines also are ranked fourth nationally in ERA, a combined 1.59.
She no doubt will want what she calls her "deuce" of Betsa and Wagner to pitch with that edge.
"I've often gone out to that mound and I'll try to piss them off," Hutchins said, "because I need them pissed at something."
Apparently, that approach has worked. Betsa carries a 1.56 ERA and Wagner a 1.82, and Betsa is ranked third nationally in strikeouts per game, 11.2.
Clearly, this is a tough deuce to hit.
"We need both of us to win," Betsa said. "We're not the normal team that rides one pitcher. We both provide the team with energy and a presence on the mound, and that's what we've done all year and something we'll keep doing."
Two ready to go
Hutchins always has the backup pitcher warming up next to the starter before games. She wants both ready to go. In the second Super Regional game against Georgia last Friday, for instance, Betsa started but was hit hard in the first inning. Wagner came in and pitched the majority of the game before Betsa was reinserted.
"I don't know when I make that move that it's going to work out," Hutchins said. "Part of it is a gut feeling. My gut has served me over the years."
There isn't a competitiveness between the pitchers, and their relationship is representative of how this Michigan team carries itself, supporting and believing in each other.
"We're always there for each other," Wagner said. "We always have each other's back."
For Betsa, an 18-game winner last season as a freshman, having a veteran like Wagner in the dugout is an enormous asset. She said they frequently rely on each other to point out mistakes and offer corrections.
"We can tell each other what we're doing wrong," Betsa said. "I'll say, 'Hey, can you watch this from the dugout and tell me what I'm doing?' And she does the same for me."
Wagner was emotional after her final game at Michigan last Friday, in which she had a strong pitching performance. She has known great success at Michigan. A stellar first season earned her Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, but an arm injury two years ago when Michigan reached the World Series kept her on the sideline.
Now she's facing her final week of college softball.
"I thought about it before the game -- this is my last game on Alumni Field," Wagner said. "But in the dugout (after the game), I thought, 'Wow, I get to wear this jersey another week.' I've always wanted to wear the Block M for as long as I can, and I get to do that this week. There's something about Michigan that gets you hooked."
While all the Michigan players have talked this season of a different vibe, a trust factor throughout the team, the pitchers are, perhaps, benefitting the most because the hitting has been so impressive.
"It's important for them to know they can trust the lineup," catcher Lauren Sweet said. "(They) know we can score runs."
And the batters know the pitching has consistently been there this season. Betsa has made a big leap since her freshman season, and her offseason work has paid off with her 30 wins and accolades.
"Her mentality has completely changed," Wagner said. "She knew she had to make more pitches. She was very determined to do that. She worked extra in the summer, and she's completely changed.
"She's been outstanding, and I couldn't be more proud of her. I can't wait to see what she does the next two years."
That is, after she sees what she does in the World Series.
MICHIGAN VS. ALABAMA
What: Wolverines' Women's College World Series opener
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
Records: Michigan 56-6, Alabama 47-13
WOMEN'S COLLEGE WORLD SERIES
Game 1 — Florida vs. Tennessee, noon (ESPN)
Game 2 — Auburn vs. LSU, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3 — Michigan vs. Alabama, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 4 — Oregon vs. UCLA, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 5 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 9:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, noon
Game 8 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2:30 p.m.
Game 9 — Game 5 loser vs. Game 7 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 10 — Game 6 loser vs. Game 8 winner, 9:30 p.m.
Game 11 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 12 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 3:30 p.m.
Game 13 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 9 loser, 7 p.m., if necessary
Game 14 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 10 loser, 9:30 p.m., if necessary
Note: If only one game is necessary, it will be played at 7 p.m.
Monday, June 1 — 8 p.m.
Tuesday, June 2 — 8 p.m.
Wednesday, June 3 — 8 p.m., if necessary