Analysts: UM softball team is real deal

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Oklahoma City – Every coach in every sport will tell you that balance is the critical component for any team.

Michigan's softball team, playing in its 11th Women's College World Series and attempting to win its first title since 2005, has played in this postseason like a team that understands the balance that coach Carol Hutchins has been preaching.

From top-notch pitching, to depth in the overall lineup, not to mention leading the nation in home runs, the third-ranked Wolverines are a legitimate threat to win it all at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

"I think this is the best team Michigan's ever had, and that's saying a lot over 38 years," Jessica Mendoza, an ESPN softball/baseball analyst and former Stanford All-American and U.S. national team member, said Friday. "(That's) because of the balance.

"In '05 they had a balanced team, they weren't one-dimensional by any means, but when you look at the lineup, they had Sam Findlay and Jess Merchant and some names that were incredible, but one through nine (in the batting order), match them up (against the 2015 team) — they (2015) have 117 home runs. Part of that is technology and the way the game has gone, but they have speed.

"Watching them steal bases, watching them have the home runs, and to be honest, you look at them, and they're not a home-run swinging team."

Mendoza said there's something about the way Hutchins and assistants Jennifer Brundage and Bonnie Tholl have worked on the Wolverines' hitting this year that has made such an enormous difference. Hutchins spoke Friday night after the Wolverines' first World Series game about how they worked on vision training in the offseason.

In their Series-opening 5-0 victory Thursday night against Alabama, Kelly Christner hit a solo home run and Lauren Sweet hit a grand slam on a 3-2 pitch and made it look easy.

"Lauren Sweet's grand slam was just a basic swing," Mendoza said. "And she hits a line drive that leaves the park."

Amanda Scarborough, a former standout at Texas A&M and a 2007 finalist for National Player of the Year, worked the NCAA Regional and Super Regional in Ann Arbor for ESPN.

She witnessed that balanced hitting from the Wolverines during both regionals, and is impressed that they're not just relying on Player of the Year finalist Sierra Romero. She said the whole lineup is capable of making critical hits.

"I've said it all postseason, it's not just Sierra Romero or Sierra Lawrence that you're hearing about," Scarborough said Friday. "It's the Aidan Falks down at the bottom of the lineup and Lauren Sweet with her grand slam, just the names you're not used to hearing about.

"The underclassmen who are at the bottom of the lineup are following the lead of the upperclassmen, and just following to a T, and that's a great job of leading and a great job of following, and that's what makes leadership work.

Michigan entered the Alabama game with a 25-game winning streak but faced a tough pitcher in Alexis Osorio. Scarborough said she thought lead-off batter Lawrence set the tone on her first pitch of her first at-bat when she fouled the ball straight back. She felt the Wolverines were making it clear from the start that they intended to swing freely.

"The thing that impressed me, and they proved it even more so (against Alabama), to be able to make it here is one thing, but to be able to have good results here is a totally different thing" Scarborough said. "They clearly proved it going up against another All-American pitcher in Osorio that they're going to swing the bat.

"That was, in my mind, going to be the biggest question mark because of the pitching differences they face in the Big Ten and their long win streak versus the pitching differences they were going to face here. The fact they proved it in the first game was one of the biggest things that stuck out to me and of course (pitcher Megan) Betsa stepping up to the challenge and performing just like she has been all year."

Betsa, a sophomore, is a 30-game-plus winner this season, and has shown how balanced her pitching has become.

"Betsa has a great riseball, not as good as Osorio's, but how did she set up that pitch?" Mendoza said. "She has this drop that is just gorgeous and it's right here (at the knees), so all of a sudden you come back with that riseball, and the way she's able to locate it, there isn't a pitcher here who can do that mix. It's not that she has that one pitch, it's her setup pitch to her best pitch that allows her to be great."