Haylie Wagner had proven that she was ready for the spotlight as a starter.
Though an ace in her own right, Wagner had been serving as Michigan's reliever throughout the NCAA Tournament when starter Megan Betsa found herself in trouble. And, in the three games of the Women's College World Series before tonight's Game 2 of the Championship Series, Betsa had found herself in trouble in the first three innings each time, struggling with her confidence. However, Wagner entered the game each time, stopped the bleeding, and suppressed the opponent's offense. In fact, Wagner was so effective that, in her previous three contests, she surrendered no earned runs and only six hits while tossing 11 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched. That's absolutely remarkable.
So much so that, with Michigan's season on the line, trailing Florida, 1-0, in the best-of-three Championship Series after last night's heart-wrenching 3-2 loss in Game 1, head coach Carol Hutchins decided to make the switch and gave Wagner the start in Game 2.
And did it ever pay off.
Wagner was wonderful. She pitched a complete-game shutout, tossing seven scoreless innings against Florida's high-power offense, recording five strikeouts and allowing only six hits. Only three Gators were able to work their way into scoring position all game, and, each time that happened, Wagner worked her way out of the inning with ease as the Wolverines rode her to a 1-0 victory over Florida to force a do-or-die Game 3 tomorrow.
And Wagner received the only run support she needed in the first inning.
Whereas Florida had the ideal start in the first inning in Game 1, the roles reversed in Game 2. After Wagner mowed down the first three batters in the top half of the frame, Michigan's offense went to work in the bottom half. Sierra Lawrence led off by ripping an 0-2 pitch into left field for a single and then beat out the throw to second during the next at-bat when Sierra Romero hit a slow-roller to shortstop Kathlyn Medina. Two batters later, Kelsey Susalla drove in the game's only run when she floated a soft fly ball into center field that Kirsti Merritt mistimed and allowed to bounce past her. This provided Lawrence sufficient time to sprint home, giving Michigan an early 1-0 lead.
The Gators almost added a run of their own in the top of the second, but shortstop Abby Ramirez, who was at fault for two errors in Game 1, made a brilliant snag to support Wagner. With two outs and Lauren Haeger on second, Taylor Schwarz struck a fast grounder that seemed like it would squirt into the outfield and allow Haeger to score. However, Ramirez dove to the dirt and nabbed it, almost getting the third out at first. Though Schwarz beat the throw, Ramirez's play held Haeger at third, and Wagner got Aubree Munro to swing through a 2-2 pitch on the following at-bat to end the threat.
Two innings later, Wagner was able to maneuver her way out of another jam. Haeger once again reached base with a single that glanced off the outreached glove of Ramirez, and Taylore Fuller advanced Haeger's pinch-runner, Jessica Damico, to second base with a line-drive single into left-center field with only one out on the board. But, after a quick huddle in the circle, Wagner forced Bailey Castro to pop out to a racing Romero behind first base and Schwarz to ground out to Ramirez to end the top of the fourth inning.
Ramirez's bounce-back night at shortstop extended into the fifth inning, too. After Munro dropped a flare into shallow right field for a single, Justine McLean rocketed a line drive at Ramirez. Ramirez was able to handle it and then doubled off Florida's pinch-runner, Chelsea Herndon, who charged too far towards second on contact, at first base.
Michigan then had a chance to add to its lead in the bottom half of the fifth, but a controversial call by the third-base umpire extinguished the opportunity. Lawrence was on second base after a double to left-center field with one out when Romero rolled a grounder to Medina. When Medina threw out Romero at first, Lawrence took off for third base. The Gators threw the ball back across the diamond to Fuller, who was crouched in front of the bag. It seemed that, before Fuller caught the ball to apply the tag, her body blocked the sliding Lawrence from reaching the bag, which the umpire should have ruled obstruction and, thus, called Lawrence safe. Instead, the umpire ruled there was no obstruction, calling Lawrence out and permitting the Gators to complete the inning-ending double play. It seemed like the incorrect call, and Michigan should have had Lawrence on third base with two outs and another shot to drive her home.
But, ultimately, it didn't matter because one run was all Wagner needed. After forcing Fuller to line out to Ramirez with a runner on second base to end the sixth frame, Wagner sucked the life out of the Gators by posting a 1-2-3 seventh inning, striking out the final two Gator hitters, to seal the win and preserve Michigan's championship hopes.
After tonight's performance, there's no question that Michigan will send Wagner back out to the circle for tomorrow's Game 3 of the Championship Series (Jun. 3rd, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN), the winner of which will celebrate the 2015 NCAA championship. In her last four games, she's allowed no earned runs, 12 hits, and struck out 16 batters in 20 innings.
Wagner is absolutely dealing right now.
And, if she does it once more, she'll be hoisting the trophy in the spotlight she deserves.