UM's Wagner armed for championship performance

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Oklahoma City — The memories from two years ago drove Michigan pitcher Haylie Wagner. For two seasons, they motivated her and pushed her, even early in this postseason when she was not the Wolverines' starter.

Wagner did not pitch for Michigan two years ago when they reached the World Series because of a shoulder injury. The senior lefthander, whose career is now over with the Wolverines' 4-1 loss to Florida in the deciding game of the World Series on Wednesday night, had an impressive postseason for the Wolverines this year in large part because of what she wasn't able to do two years earlier.

"This entire year and last year I just wanted to come out and get back here (to the World Series) and experience this atmosphere and just work my butt off and trust my team no matter what," Wagner said this week.

Wagner started the last two World Series games for Michigan, got the victory in Game 2 but gave up four runs in the first 1.1 innings on Wednesday, and the Wolverines could never recover.

"This loss doesn't define our season," Wagner said, her eyes reddened. "We played our hearts out, and we played with the heart and soul we've been playing for the past few weeks. Florida is a really great team, and they came out firing right back today, and congratulations to them, but this doesn't define us. We're a family, and these people on Team 38 will always be my best friends and my sisters."

She said the Gators clearly were on a mission from the start.

"They definitely came out attacking," she said. "They got a hold of the ball. I could have spun the ball a little bit more. I had to go after them, and they were fighting right back and throwing the same punches we were."

It has been a long journey for Wagner.

She was the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year as a freshman in 2012, then dealt with the injury the following year and some confidence issues even earlier this year. She found a groove in the post season beginning in the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals played in Ann Arbor.

Wagner carried that momentum into the World Series, pitching flawlessly in relief and then scoring the shutout against Florida in Game 2 Tuesday night.

Amanda Scarborough, an ESPN analyst and former standout pitcher at Texas A&M, believes that what Wagner had gone through during her college career gave her the resources for her tough postseason pitching performances before Wednesday night's loss.

"I think that she can play a lot of different roles," Scarborough said. "She's been a No. 2, she's been injured, she has been the No. 1, she's been an All-American, she's Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Name it, she's done it. She's used everything she's gone through to help her."

Jennie Ritter was a junior for Michigan in 2005 when the Wolverines won a national championship. Now she works for Louisville Slugger and as an analyst on softball for the Big Ten Network.

Ritter called a Michigan game against Iowa in late March. At that point, Ritter believed the Wolverines' two pitchers, including sophomore Megan Betsa, were 1A and 1B, although Betsa was clearly on the rise. Michigan won that game, but Wagner gave up six hits and four runs in five innings.

"She did not have a great game, and in my mind I was wondering, 'What's happening to her? She's great,' " Ritter said. "You could tell it was a confidence thing. I didn't know where she was going to go. Confidence doesn't grow on trees, and at that point she had to make a decision which way she was going to go."

A few days later against Minnesota, Wagner apparently made the decision what trajectory her final few months of college softball would take. Wagner, who works fast, started calling her own game and finished her career that way.

"It gives me time to not get distracted by the fans or anything else," Wagner said after pitching a 1-0 shutout against Florida on Tuesday night. "I have to think about what pitch I want to throw next. Sometimes (pitching coach) Jen Brundage gives (catcher) Lauren (Sweet) a sign what she thinks I should throw, and I decide if I want to throw it or not."

Ritter was a junior when the Wolverines won it all, but she knows that as a senior, Wagner wanted to play out her career in Oklahoma City in a big way. She described Wagner's approach as being on a mission, not wanting her career to end and knowing she was part of a strong team chemistry.

"She's pitched with some of the best energy I've seen," Ritter said. "She's played with guts I haven't seen in a pitcher in a long time."

Scarborough believes another major motivator for Wagner this season, particularly in the postseason, was the fact she gave up a two-run walk-off home run to Florida State last year that sent the Seminoles to the World Series.

"Maybe there was some revenge for last year after giving up the walk-off to Florida State," Scarborough said in describing why Wagner has pitched so strong in this postseason. "She wanted it to end on a different note.

She said Wagner looked like she was having more fun pitching, seemed relaxed and trusted herself. Not to mention the confidence she's had with the infield behind her with shortstop Abby Ramirez and second baseman Sierra Romero.

Along the way, she helped mentor Betsa, a sophomore. Hutchins has said all season she doesn't have an ace, she has a deuce, and Wagner helped the young pitcher mature.

"She taught me how to be strong, how to be a bulldog in the circle," Betsa said after the loss. "And she was always there to tell me what I was doing wrong. And something she taught me was that I need to play every pitch of the game because I can help whoever is in the circle and I really took from that, and I really tried to do my best to help her when she's in the circle if I saw anything that I could help her with."

There's always discussions in the world of sports, particularly involving college athletes, regarding the legacies they leave. How will Wagner, who had 100 victories during her college career, be remembered?

"I think people are going to remember her how she (performed in the World Series)," Ritter said. "This was how Hutch, Brundage and (assistant) Bonnie (Tholl) knew she could perform. She battled some confidence issues. She's always had to compete with another pitcher and sometimes when you compete you worry about losing your spot instead of moving forward.

"She played with a lot of heart. If I were her, that's the legacy I'd want to leave. You want to look back, 'Did I do enough for my team?' She knows she's done enough for her program."