Crimson Tide rolls into WCWS

Alabama's Jackie Traina started shaky but finished strong against Michigan on Friday. Jeri Gulsby

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Alabama found Jackie Traina, it found the kind of pitcher who can win the program its first national championship. Friday afternoon against Michigan, the sophomore's teammates made sure she will get an opportunity to do just that next week when the Women's College World Series begins in Oklahoma City.

On the strength of a 4-3 win against Michigan, the Crimson Tide became the first team to qualify for softball's championship stage. It says something that they did it without their ace at her best.

It says something about Traina, a pitcher as physically gifted as any in Alabama history, that even when her body isn't fully willing, her mind is always ready for a scrap.

"They're tough," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "They're speedy, they're powerful and they're confident. And Traina gives them all that confidence. Traina's tough. We showed you can get some runs off them, but boy, they're just going to answer back."

Alabama flirted with the wrong kind of drama in a stadium that had already seen two winner-take-all games in super regionals in the past three seasons, with few in attendance in need of any reminder that one such game ended in heartbreaking fashion against Hawaii. Alabama needed just one win this time to advance to the World Series for the fourth time in five seasons, while Michigan needed two wins after losing Thursday's opener. It appeared for a time that another super regional would go the distance in Tuscaloosa.

The SEC champions entered Friday's game having outscored opponents 103-22 in the first inning this season and were headed for more of the same after walks to Kayla Braud and Kaila Hunt, the latter intentional, in the top of the first inning (the home-road designation flipped after Thursday's opening game, making Alabama the visiting team). But a nicely turned double play by the Wolverines ended the threat, and when Amanda Chidester launched one of Traina's pitches deep over the fence in left field in the bottom of the inning to give her team the lead, momentum rested with Michigan.

Traina wasn't sharp in the early innings, both her command and her velocity below the usual standards of a pitcher who entered the game with a 36-2 record and 1.66 ERA. She initially didn't get much help from her teammates, either. Two errors in the second inning helped the Wolverines tack on two more runs to extend their lead to 3-1.

By the end of the second inning, Traina had allowed four hits and still didn't have a strikeout. Fifth-year senior Amanda Locke was warming up in the bullpen. And a general tenor of nervousness had settled over a stadium far quieter than it had been the previous night. Settled everywhere but over an island of confidence whose borders stood out in white chalk in the middle of the infield. Traina wasn't sharp, but she wasn't rattled.

"The two unearned runs, that was the team's fault," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "But most pitchers would have given up by then, [thinking] 'It's hot, we'll go to a third game.' ...The mind starts to wander. And she does the opposite. She keeps us in the game until we can score, and then we get ahead and she does it again.

"She's got that uncanny ability to not worry about stuff. It doesn't get to her. She's very even-keeled."

Traina's physical ability is impossible to miss. Her pitches top 70 mph with regularity, something that is in and of itself not entirely common in college softball. But it isn't just the raw speed that sets her apart when she has the ball in her hand. Whether it's her rise, her drop, her curve or her change, her pitches have the kind of exaggerated movement more familiar to video games. The combination is why a goofy, smiling kid whose company all of her teammates genuinely seem to enjoy off the field is also arguably the least loved person on the team in the preseason -- at least for half the roster on a scrimmage-by-scrimmage basis.

"She's really the first pitching we see of the year, and I think everyone has a tiny little celebration in scrimmages when we realize we're on Jackie's team," senior Cassie Reilly-Boccia said of facing her in the preseason. "That ball is on you before you know it. She looks the same on every pitch she throws, and she makes it move -- I don't know if I've ever faced someone who makes it move as much as she does and throws as hard as she does."

All of that was evident to Murphy the first time he saw her pitch when she was in high school -- anyone who watches Traina pitch can see the physical gifts. It wasn't until he saw her in a travel-ball tournament in Colorado, when Traina played against dozens of the best teams California, Arizona and the rest of the nation had to offer, that he realized what else he would get if he signed her. Playing against elite teams, at altitude, she dominated en route to a championship. That will to win is a rarer trait than even her physical tools.

"Deep down she's got this fire and this fierceness about her, that will to win and will to succeed," said Alabama first-year pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle, someone who possessed many of the same traits during her All-American career for the Crimson Tide. "You can't always see that because she's not very expressive. In the big situations she is, but not all the time. But I really like how she doesn't get rattled. I saw that right away in the fall. I kind of made it hard, and she was not getting rattled. She would get frustrated but never to the point that she wouldn't make an adjustment and get better."

So she listened to VanBrakle and catcher Kendall Dawson as Friday's game wore on and made adjustments, throwing more offspeed changes, tweaking her step. Michigan's momentum slowed, and Alabama started to get people on base against Haylie Wagner. Two were stranded in the fourth inning, but after Jen Fenton reached on an infield single in the fifth, sophomore Kaila Hunt delivered her 20th home run of the season to tie the score. An inning later, Kayla Braud's triple down the right-field line brought home pinch runner Danielle Richard to give Alabama its first lead of the day at 4-3.

"We have a ton of confidence in our pitching, that they're going to hold it down to a score that we can score more than," Braud said. "And that's exactly what Jackie did. She held them to three runs, and we put up four. That's not pressure; that's just understanding that we have a job to do and getting it done."

Traina retired 16 of the final 19 batters she faced after the Wolverines got their runs in the second inning. She needed help, including a sensational play and throw from third baseman Courtney Conley with one out and a runner on base in the bottom of the seventh, but she just kept throwing the ball. The final out came by strikeout, her final two pitches registering 71 mph. When she needed it most, she found it.

"I'm putting my foot down; this is not going to happen," Traina recalled telling herself after the early trouble. "I know my team's got my back, so I'm going to throw my game right now and I'm going to throw the best I can throw and I know they have my back."

Alabama is much more than one great player. It's a team with perhaps the strongest senior leadership of Murphy's tenure, a collection of veterans who handle team discipline before issues ever reach the coach. It's an offense with game-changing speed from players like Braud and Fenton and a power-hitting shortstop in Hunt who is herself a star coming into her own. All of which is why the Crimson Tide are going to Oklahoma City.

But if you're looking for the reason Alabama can win it all next week, look at Traina.

"I really don't think she knows [how good she is]," Fenton said. "She's an amazing pitcher, and I've never seen anyone like her, but I don't think she knows she's that good. We all see it, but I don't think she does."