Michigan freshman pitcher Haylie Wagner coming up clutch, with help from her wise-cracking teammates
Chris Asadian | AnnArbor.com
Every good pitcher has a secret of the trade.
Maybe it's a special pitch, or a superstitious pregame meal. Some talk to themselves, while others attempt to block out everything surrounding them.
For Michigan softball freshman Haylie Wagner, when the stakes are raised, her secret weapon is a good laugh.
"If I get into a tough situation, (my teammates) just come out there and remind me to have fun and just be myself," said Wagner, who will take the pitching circle when Michigan takes on Alabama Thursday (8 p.m., ESPN2) in the first game of a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
"(They'll make) jokes with me, (and remind me to) have fun out there on the mound. (They're) keeping me relaxed."
On Saturday, with Michigan (42-15) clinging to a 1-0 lead over host Louisville in NCAA Regional action, Wagner ran into a tough spot with the game on the line in the seventh inning.
After giving up a leadoff double and throwing a wild pitch, Wagner's teammates gathered for a meeting in the circle.
Coach Carol Hutchins made her way out and delivered what appeared to be a rather stern, straight-faced message.
From there, though, in what was clearly the most pressure-packed moment of her young career, Wagner and her infielders were seen with wide smiles on their faces, laughing as if nothing happened.
What was said in that huddle, exactly?
"We keep it in the circle," laughed senior first baseman Amanda Chidester, the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Louisville eventually tied the game on a sacrifice fly, but Wagner was money from there -- setting down the next four batters in a row before the Wolverines toppled the Cardinals with a walk-off in the bottom of the eighth.
Laughter may be the best medicine for Wagner, and, make no mistake, her left arm has absolutely been the best medicine for Michigan during this season's stretch run.
She tossed every inning of Michigan's three straight wins at the Louisville regional and hasn't suffered a loss since April 21.
On the season, the Orange, Calif. native -- who was named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year and Pitcher of the Year -- sits at 32-5 with a 1.46 earned run average. She has 153 strikeouts against 46 walks and opponents are hitting just .203 against her.
And when the lights have been brightest, Hutchins says her freshman hurler has shown the ability to "play up to her competition."
"We try to take the pressure off her. We're just encouraging her to do her part (and make sure she knows) she can't do all of it," Hutchins said. "We want to create a situation where she feels like she doesn't have to throw a shutout, it's awfully hard to throw a shutout.
"And, this week, it'll be very difficult."
Wagner will once again be tasked with pitching Michigan past another favored opponent this week, as the Wolverines will have to win the best-of-three Super Regional against No. 3 Alabama (53-7) to advance to the Women's College World Series.
She'll once again be in a true road environment, against one of the best teams in America on the biggest stage of her career.
But as long as she's able to keep her laughter under control before releasing a pitch, Wagner feels she'll be fine.
"I'm fine out there," she said. "My teammates have helped me out a lot."
When the going gets tough, the Wolverines get to joking.
Just don't ask for specifics, because that's confidential.
"That's for us to know," junior second baseman Ashley Lane said. "We keep it in the circle."