Ann Arbor — The worst thing for a perfectionist who happens to be a pitcher is idle time.
That’s when the perfectionist pitcher starts to think and think some more and then gets the mind so twisted with the statistics and tendencies of an opposing batter, that the perfectionist pitcher must then deal with the dreaded imperfections.
Megan Betsa, Michigan’s standout right-hander and the two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, will be the first to tell you that it has taken until now, her junior season, to realize how far she has come and how much she has matured.
“When I came here my freshman year, I played mind games all the times,” Betsa said this week. “I would look up who the hitters were and what they did and if they hit all the home runs and then I would pitch around them. I would play that game.”
That game can take a mental toll.
She has had a series of epiphanies this year, since the offseason when the returning Michigan players were coming to grips with how close they were to winning a national championship last season — the Wolverines were the national runner-up to Florida — and then the preseason while dealing with a lower back problem that set her back a month, and during the season thanks to conversations with the team sports psychologist, not to mention with head coach Carol Hutchins and pitching coach Jennifer Brundage.
Betsa pitched beautifully last weekend as Michigan swept the NCAA Regional to advance to this weekend’s best-of-three Super Regional against Missouri at Alumni Field. The winner advances to the College World Series.
In 17 innings, Betsa, who leads the nation with 11.3 strikeouts per seven innings, had 24 strikeouts, and allowed 10 hits and one walk. She had back-to-back one-hitters against Valparaiso and Miami (Ohio) in the first two Regional games.
“You have to be a really competitive person to play at this level and to excel at this level, especially on the mound,” Hutchins said. “She’s extremely competitive and what I love most about Megan is when she has ups and downs, and in particular when she’s had some downs, she really works hard to get through them.”
Betsa appreciates how close Michigan was to winning a national title, but shortly after, she wrestled with trying to make sense of it all.
“The offseason was a tough time for a lot of us,” she said. “You go through all of that and you come up just short. I had to find that motivation again. I’d be like, ‘I worked so hard to get second place, what else can I do? I did all that and not that it was for nothing, but it wasn’t for a national championship.’
“For a long time in the fall, I felt I was doing the same thing over and over again and one day it kind of clicked and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m grateful for this opportunity. I’m grateful that I get to still be here and get another shot at this.’”
Then she had to deal with a lower back problem, the source of which no one could determine. She saw six or seven doctors, she tried dry needling, a cortisone shot, a lot of yoga and was in the training room for hours each day. She chose to try all the different methods to expedite the healing and was frustrated she wasn’t improving faster. The first day of the team’s opening season tournament, Betsa lasted only three innings because it was too painful to walk. A few days later, after more yoga and stretching, she has been pain free ever since.
And then the mind games returned.
“When I actually started feeling better I was so disappointed I wasn’t where I wanted to be, where I thought I should be,” Betsa said. “I kept playing mind games with myself. I was like, ‘Well, last year at this point I was doing this.’ I was doing that for the first six weeks of the season. It showed. My ERA was high, my walks were high and once I learned to let go of it ... it improved.”
Betsa has always tried to be a perfect pitcher, and when things aren’t perfect, she sometimes works too hard to shift the outcome. The team met with sports psychologist Scott Goldman, and his message had an impact on her.
“He talked about how every strength can be turned into a weakness,” she said of Goldman. “That was something that opened my eyes. My perfectionism can be a weakness and that was when I realized, ‘Well, if I try too hard that gets me out of my game and it allows me to work too hard.’ Sometimes when you work too hard, things just get worse.”
One of Betsa’s strengths is how well she takes coaching and handling criticism. She is now a firm believer in Brundage’s move last week to shrink the strike zone in practice, using strings to create the target.
“I promise you, it was two-balls width all the way around,” said Betsa, whose spin is considered among the best in the game. “It was my job to not to get frustrated. I had one walk in 17 innings and I probably had three to four before that. It definitely helped.”
Betsa has seven tattoos. Inside her left wrist is the word, “Fearless”, and on her right forearm, the tattoo reads: “Be courageous in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” It is her favorite.
“To me it means whatever you’re passionate about, do it with everything you have and don’t let anyone sway your opinion and your ideas,” Betsa said.
What she’s passionate about now is pitching well, which means pitching freely with focus but without overthinking.
Michigan vs. Missouri
What: NCAA Super Regional.
Where: Alumni Field, Ann Arbor.
Tickets: Sold out.
At stake: Spot in Women’s College World Series.
Notable: This is one of eight two-team Super Regionals. In last year’s Super Regionals, Michigan swept Georgia 10-3 and 7-6.
Game 1: Saturday, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Sunday, noon (ESPN)
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 3 p.m. (ESPNU)