espnW Softball Player Of The Year: Michigan's Sierra Romero
Among the last things a pitcher wants to see when facing Sierra Romero is a smirk. The next thing they see may well be the softball receding into the night.
Go back for a moment to the fifth inning of this season's Big Ten championship game between Michigan and Nebraska. In possession of a comfortable three-run lead, the Wolverines had an opportunity to break it open with runners on second and third and Romero in the batter's box. Instead of pitching around her with first base open, the Huskers elected to go after the All-American, who had atypically failed to reach base in either of her first two plate appearances. The first pitch from Kaylan Jablonski was away but flat and straight, an invitation for a hitter to extend her arms.
Romero swung and missed, the force lifting her off her feet. And then she smirked.
"I knew I had just missed that pitch," Romero said. "My previous at-bats I had flown out, but I knew that I was on it. I knew that it was just a matter of time before I got a hold of one. That's what the smirk was for: I knew I was on it."
She nevertheless fouled off the next pitch to put herself in a 0-2 hole against Jablonski. Of all the remarkable numbers Romero has generated this season, few are more outlandish than just seven strikeouts in more than 200 plate appearances. There are a handful of full-time starters in major conferences with comparable totals, but they are mostly bat-control specialists. They are slappers and singles hitters, not sluggers.
The bigger the swing, the greater the potential reward and the risk of coming up empty. That is one of the bargains inherent in bat-and-ball sports. Romero never signed the contract. She doesn't strike out. She is not Mighty Casey, merely mighty good.
The third pitch was a rise ball, the rocks upon which so many at-bats are shipwrecked. Romero held her swing for ball one.
"With two strikes on me, I was looking down," Romero said. "I wasn't going to swing at anything that brought my eyes up."
The next pitch came in low and inside, a borderline strike but too close for even a good eye to let pass and entrust to the whim of the umpire. Romero's back leg dipped toward the ground, the bat whipped through the zone like a golfer's driver and the ball soared toward center field. The hop from the pitcher as she turned to track its flight was a giveaway that she knew the outcome. Romero knew, too, as she ran toward first and made the turn at a jog.
It's not so much about getting Romero out as just getting her to stop at first base.
In a college softball season dominated by record run production, including the juggernaut lineup of which she is a part, Romero is one of the toughest outs in the country. Willing to wait for her pitch, she will take first base if it's given. If not -- if challenged to beat the odds that say a hitter should fail more times than she succeeds -- she will win more often than not.
Often enough to be espnW's national player of the year.
"You've never met a more confident kid," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "It's swag, we call it. It's not really cocky. I suppose some people would think it might be, but she just totally believes in herself. She gets mad when she makes an out. She will usually declare that she got herself out, and I'll tell you what, she's very often right."
There is reason for that confidence. The numbers she accumulates are staggering. The face of the NCAA tournament's third-seeded team, Romero enters the Ann Arbor regional hitting .469 with 20 home runs, 74 RBIs, a .979 slugging percentage and .624 on-base percentage (she's also turned all that time on base into 17 stolen bases). The slugging percentage is good for sixth in the nation, while the on-base percentage ranks third overall and best among players from major conferences (she led the nation in on-base percentage a season ago).
And while the Big Ten in which Romero spends much of the regular season is not as deep a conference compared to the Pac-12 or SEC, Michigan's schedule leaves minimal room for any suggestion of stat inflation. In Michigan's 15 most notable games, a total that includes multiple games against Alabama, Arizona State, Florida, Florida State and Minnesota and single games against Baylor, James Madison and Western Kentucky, she hit .512, walked nine times, scored 17 runs, drove in 14 runs and stole six bases.
That doesn't even include the Big Ten Tournament, when she went 5-for-8 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in three games, two of them against NCAA tournament teams.
All of 5-foot-4 by her telling, although the official roster gifts her an extra inch, Romero was not born a power hitter. A small-ball speedster until high school, she made herself into a slugger through hours in the batting cage and more than a few in the weight room. But the fascination with hitting, the passion for that particular athletic act -- that came installed.
"One day you can 0-for-3, the next day you can go 3-for-3," Romero said. "I love the challenge that it brings. It can be really frustrating at times, but at the same time, it makes the success of it that much better."
If she followed her own math in that example, she would hit .500. For most hitters, that's hyperbole. For Romero, it's more like a goal. Romero and Hutchins both contend that as good as the player's season looks on paper, and as good as it is in reality, there were stretches this season when she didn't swing the bat as well as she wanted to or as well as she could (which is to say, all things being relative, stretches in which she hit close to .500 with singles instead extra-base hits).
"I'm just really hard on myself when it comes to hitting," Romero said. "I try to be perfect in an imperfect sport. I've got to be OK with failing."
At one point this season, Michigan assistant coach Jen Brundage, who once led the nation in hitting with a .518 batting average at UCLA, asked Romero why she was so frustrated.
"I told her I should be hitting .600," Romero said.
You get the feeling the toughest out in college softball wasn't smirking when she said it.