Big 10

Megan Betsa, with a strong arm and a sore back, set to carry Michigan into WCWS

June 2, 2016

ANN ARBOR — Megan Betsa’s right arm will carry the most weight in Michigan’s trip to the 2016 Women’s College World Series.

And on that right forearm, a tattoo reads: “Be courageous in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.”

It’s Betsa’s favorite of her seven tattoos. She got it in the fall, just in time, because this year has been one needing some courage — especially this week.

Having seen her early season derailed by mysterious back pains, the pitcher shook off the injury to again earn All-American honors. Those back issues, though, have now reemerged when U-M can least afford it.

“I’m probably at about 80 percent,” Betsa said earlier this week before departing for Oklahoma City, site of the WCWS. “I think I can get the job done with that.”

She and Michigan will find out on Thursday night. The second-seeded Wolverines face No. 10-seeded LSU at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and the Tigers will be bringing their bats. While reliant on a three-player pitching staff that’s combined to rank in the top 10 nationally in ERA all year, LSU also boasts six hitters batting above .300.

Senior Bianka Bell leads the way with a .386 average, a .551 on-base percentage and 12 home runs. She’s a two-time First Team All-SEC selection.

For Betsa, it doesn’t particularly matter who she faces. Now with a 76-12 career record with a 1.91 ERA, she is entirely reliant on U-M pitching coach Jennifer Brundage to scout opponents and call every pitch selection. Betsa’s lone job is to get outs.

Over last weekend, that grew difficult when Betsa tweaked her back. It was reminiscent of an early-January scrimmage when a shooting pain sidelined the junior for five-to-six weeks.

Dealing with that early-season issue, Betsa tried an array of cures — including a cortisone shot and acupuncture — and, poof, the pain vanished.

“I don’t know what made it go away,” she said this week. “It could have been (the cortisone shot), it could have been yoga, it could have been anything. I tried so many different things.”

Then came Saturday.

“It magically went away, but now it’s back,” Betsa said.

Betsa still managed to deal a 5-3 win over No. 15 Missouri in the first game of last weekend’s NCAA Super Regionals, despite some control issues, to improve to 27-3 in 2016.

The following day, Betsa started strong, but winced after throwing the first pitch of the fifth inning. She was visited in the circle by Brundage, head coach Carol Hutchins and trainer Brian Boyls-White. She remained in the game, but allowed Missouri’s first run and a 1-1 tie.

Betsa allowed two base runners the next inning and was pulled for Sara Driesenga, who promptly gave up a three-run home run. With that, Hutchins turned to Betsa in the dugout and told her to prepare to pitch the afternoon’s do-or-die elimination game. The coach told her, “The only way you’re going back in is if we tie it.”

Now part of Michigan softball lore, the Wolverines posted a stirring four-run seventh and Betsa was beckoned from an ice bath in the U-M locker room. She pulled her uniform back on — “Dirty socks, everything,” — and returned to the circle in the seventh. Michigan held on for a 5-4 win.

“She was the toughest player on the field that day,” Hutchins said of Betsa, soon adding, “At this time of year, it’s all about people stepping up and your pitching has to keep you in it.”

It remains to be seen at what level Betsa will be able to pitch against LSU, but Hutchins appears to be heading to Oklahoma City with full intentions of riding her ace.

Hutchins said on Monday, “She’s got a few days to get to 100 (percent),” but noted, “She’s not pitching as well as I know she can.”

Betsa remains unwavering that she’ll be ready to go in Oklahoma City. She was slated to receive another cortisone shot on Tuesday.

With or without pain, Betsa is sticking with her pitch selection.

“Curves hurt the most, but I need that pitch to be successful, so it’s something I’ll have to work around,” Betsa said. “My changeup is really working well for me and I’ve always had success with that. Then my rise-ball is one of my best pitches, as long as I get it up in the zone.”

Despite ranking second nationally with 10.8 strikeouts per game, Betsa expects to be more reliant on groundouts and pop-ups in the WCWS.

More importantly, she expects to be comfortable. Prior to last year’s World Series opener against Alabama, Betsa’s nerves nearly turned to nausea before she collected herself and gunned a complete-game shutout in front of 8,360 fans.

In theory, that would have settled Betsa down for the remainder of the series. Instead, she allowed three early runs in each of her next three WCWS starts against UCLA, LSU and Florida and didn’t make it through the fourth inning in any outing.

The next game — down 0-1 in the championship series against Florida — Betsa handed off starting duties to Haylie Wagner, who responded with a complete-game shutout and a win.

In the final game, despite Michigan falling 4-1 to finish as national runner-up, Betsa pitched well in relief, replacing Wagner to throw four scoreless innings.

Now Betsa is returning to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium for another go-round. While the plan for her ailing back is simple — “A lot of Ibuprofen and a lot of ice and just go with it,” — the plan for her psyche is just as uncomplicated.

Besta, carrying all that weight on her right arm, said she’ll rely on one of the Wolverines’ slogans: You can see it as pressure or you can see it as an opportunity.

“That’s something I’ve really taken to heart,” Besta said. “I can go out there and be scared that they’re going to hit every pitch over the wall or I can throw my pitch with conviction and strike them out. If you take it like that — as an opportunity — you’re going to have more success.”

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