A couple of weekends ago I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to visit one of my best friends and watch the University of Michigan softball team take on Michigan State and Northwestern. I saw four games and quickly fell in love with the Michigan softball program.
They play amazing softball. They have one of the most legendary coaching staffs in the game. The Wolverines have a rich tradition that they revere and make a point to celebrate. This season they opened and dedicated one of the nicest softball stadiums in the nation. They have a loyal, fun fan base of which I am glad to now be a part.
The Wolverines crushed Michigan State in the two games I watched. Two grand slams, several home runs and a mercy-rule ending. It was one of the most potent offensive displays I have ever seen.
The two games against Northwestern were quite the opposite. Low scoring, decided by one run and the teams split. Not only hard-fought duels between top-20 teams and conference rivals, but the outcome was to decide who took the Big Ten conference lead and, therefore, who would host the conference tournament. I took this video below of Michigan coming back in the bottom of the seventh inning to win the second game and maintain their share of the lead conference standingsit was intense:
Since the standings were still tied at the end of regular season and their respective run differentials were also equal, a coin toss would decide which co-conference champ would host the Big Ten tournament. Northwestern won the toss and is hosting the tournament that opens today.
I have a lot of respect for Northwesterns program having competed against them several times in the cross-town rivalry at Loyola Chicago. But this weekend Ill be pulling for No. 2 Michigan to pull out the win over top-seeded Northwestern. Go Blue!
An injured Kirk Gibson hitting a pinch-hit walk-off home run off in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Joe Carter crushing a walk-off home run to win the 1993 World Series. Becky Marx sending one over while trailing UCLA to tie the game and get University of Michigan back in the title hunt at the Womens College World Series. These home runs are seared into my memory. They repeatedly make highlight reels and are iconic in the world of sports. But a home run in the recent Western Oregon and Central Washington softball contest perhaps should be celebrated above all.
A post-season appearance hinged on the outcome of the game. Western Oregon senior Sara Tucholsky had never hit a home run in her career. Tucholsky came to the plate in the top of the second inning of the second game with two runners on base and a 0-0 score. She had just three hits in 34 at-bats this season, but she drove a pitch over the centerfield fence.
In her excitement, she missed first base on her home run trot and reversed direction to tag the bag. She tore a ligament in her knee in doing so and crumbled to the ground. While she crawled back to first base, her two teammates crossed the plate, leaving her the only offensive player on the field.
The umpires confirmed that the only option available under the rules was to replace Tucholsky at first base with a pinch runner and have the hit recorded as a two-run single instead of a three-run home run. Any assistance from coaches or trainers while she was an active runner would result in an out.
And then an opposing player, Mallory Holtman, asked if it would it be OK if she helped carry her around and touch each bag.
"Honestly, it's one of those things that I hope anyone would do it for me," Holtman explained. "She hit the ball over her fence. She's a senior; it's her last year I think anyone who knew that we could touch her would have offered to do it, just because it's the right thing to do."
Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace lifted Tucholsky off the ground and supported her weight between them as they began perhaps the longest and most crowded home run trot in the game's history.
Accompanied by a standing ovation from the fans, they finally reached home plate and passed the home run hitter into the arms of her own teammates. Then Holtman and Wallace returned to their positions and tried to win the game.
Central Washington did rally for two runs in the bottom of the second, but Western Oregon held on for a 4-2 winthe winning run a result of one of the most astounding acts of sportsmanship I have ever seen.
Check it out, and add this home run to the list of most memorable ones you have ever seen:
Lisa Fernandez, a three-time Olympic champion and one of the best pitchers in the world, wasnt good enough to beat out Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott to make the U.S. National Teams final Olympic roster as the team readies for Beijing.
A few weeks ago, Fernandez admitted she was having a tough time getting her skills back, but was confident she could still play at a high level.
"I think I still have it," she said. "I think the advantage I have is my experience. I have the heart."
And she does. Ive followed Fernandezs career dating back to 1994 during her days at UCLA, where she led the Bruins to two NCAA championships. I watched her win a gold medal in the first Olympic Games that included the sport of softball. Every girl on my softball team had the Lisa Fernandez Louisville Slugger bat.
The truth is her vast amounts of experience and heart werent enough to earn her a spot in the Olympic rotation. When I interviewed Fernandez at the 2007 World Cup of Softball and asked her if she was planning on mounting a comeback, I believed she had a good chance of making it. Not only did she dominate opponents in the batters box with world-class style, but was a skilled third baseman and very strong hitter.
However, head coach Mike Candrea didnt think Fernandez got back to her usual dominating self after taking three years off to start a family.
"I was really hoping she would get close to where she was in 2004," said Candrea. " I wanted her to go out on top."
So while 37-year-old Fernandez has been left off the Olympic roster, she has been named a replacement player in the event someone gets injured. I don't think Candrea made a mistake but I sincerely wish that the Olympic roster allowed for one more player. I believe she is still the greatest softball player to ever play the game and appreciate the tremendous role she played in advancing the sport and giving female athletes someone to look up to.
Do you think Lisa Fernandez should have been included on the Olympic roster because of her versatility and experienceor does Team USA have the most solid squad possible now?
The 2008 USA Softball Olympic team roster:
Monica Abbott, Salinas, Calif. (University of Tennessee 07)
Laura Berg, Santa Fe Springs, Calif. (Graduate 98)
Day three of a summer travel fastpitch tournament in West Virginia. Must have been some rarefied air that day, because these girls hit FOUR homers in a row, in one inning. Nobody there had ever seen anything like it - may never see it again. Really exciting!