Notebook: Jaclyn Traina's fierce finish
When she starts pushing the radar gun above the interstate speed limit, up to 71, 72, even 73 mph, and the menace of the pitch makes it about as inviting to hit as a bowling ball with a broomstick, it can appear as if Jaclyn Traina doesn't really need the fielders arrayed behind her.
As April turns to May in a season without a clear pitcher to beat, she is the primary reason Alabama may still be playing when May gives way to June in Oklahoma City.
But truth be told, those fielders are the reason she's out there in the first place. They are the reason she pitched until she could pitch no more a season ago.
"When you have a circle drawn around you, that kind of gives you the license to be the 'me, me, me' type," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said of pitchers. "She's never been like that. She's never been an individual type of player."
By winning two of three games this past weekend against Georgia, Alabama clinched at least a share of the SEC regular-season championship, the third for the current senior class. One win in this week's three-game series at Missouri would clinch an outright title. And if the strength residing at the top of the Pac-12 leaves open the debate as to the nation's best conference, Alabama had to navigate the deepest league (eight SEC teams are ranked in the RPI top 20 this week, and 10 are ranked in the top 30). It wasn't supposed to be a league that was all but decided with a week to play.
Traina can't clinch conference pitcher-of-the-year honors early, but she took a big step in the Georgia series. Against a team ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring, she gave up just nine hits, two walks and three earned runs in 14 innings. Georgia scored 10 runs in the game she didn't start and became the first opponent to run-rule the Tide in Tuscaloosa since 2010. Yet the Bulldogs didn't get much of anything against Traina.
She is 13-0 in 14 starts in conference play with a 1.42 ERA that is more than half a run better than anyone else. She has a national title, one earned with a significantly higher strikeout rate than she now possesses, but it's difficult to say she has ever been a better or more complete pitcher than she is at the moment.
"I think she was born to play this game," said senior Ryan Iamurri, Traina's teammate on various rosters for roughly the past 15 years. "I don't think she really, really learned to love it until now, until it's almost gone. She was good at it, and I think that's why she played it. It got her to college or whatever. But she wants to win. She is competitive. And I think now, finally, she loves softball."
There is a tendency to confuse a softball pitcher's relative resiliency with absolute invincibility. Compared to baseball pitchers, softball aces can indeed throw more pitches more often because of the nature of their pitching motion. That doesn't mean they can throw forever. At some point, arms, legs and all the body parts that go into a pitch -- which is to say, pretty much all of them -- can still break down.
After throwing 288 2/3 innings in four months for the Crimson Tide en route to a national championship in 2012 (a lot but not the most in the nation), Traina took a week off before joining the United States national team for a full summer of competition. From there it was back to school for fall ball and her junior season soon thereafter.
By the time she got to this stage a season ago, she was dealing with the effects of a stress fracture in her pitching arm that only rest was going to help.
"Your body's not feeling good and you start getting mentally tired, too," Traina said. "You're not up to the standards you want to be at -- you hold yourself really high. Physically you're very drained and then you start getting mentally drained, too."
She was instructed to take the summer off, and for three months she didn't throw a pitch. That separation would drive a lot of pitchers up the wall. It merely nudged Traina out the door on her way to the sand.
"It wasn't hard for me," Traina said. "I play for my teammates. So if I'm away from the game, it's OK. I thrive off of them, and I love it. So I'm having fun when I'm with them. So if I'm not [playing softball], it's not a big deal to me. I love going to the beach. That's what I did all summer. I just love doing stuff outside of it, so it made it easy for me."
Is the fiercest competitor the person who is driven to win above all else? Or is it the person who can't bear the thought of letting teammates lose?
There is nothing wrong with the former, which has fueled any number of champions and all-time greats. Nor, in reality, is it mutually exclusive with the latter.
For Traina, the game has been the means to an end of being part of something. But the best way to keep that from ending is to make the games mean something.
"There is totally something different this year," Iamurri said. "She's staying up watching film -- like she wants to watch film of the hitters she's about to pitch against. She's texting the team these inspiring quotes about beating people and how if they beat us, they're going to have to bleed to do it. I mean, ferocious Jackie is coming out.
"It's still a completely selfless sense of doing it for the team, but I think there might be a bit of an 'I want to do it for myself' kind of thing. She knows she's good. And she had a bad year last year, and she knows that she wants to finish with a bang. There's a different fire in her this year that I see."
Players of the week
Lauren Coleman, Georgia State: Georgia State probably has too much ground to make up to position itself for NCAA tournament at-large consideration (it is currently No. 59 in the RPI), but it kept the door from slamming shut this past week, first beating Georgia on the road and winning a conference series against Louisiana-Monroe. Coleman was in the middle of the success, driving in the first run and scoring the final one in a 4-2 win against the SEC team. She went 4-for-6 with six walks in three games against Louisiana-Monroe, giving her an .824 on-base percentage for the week.
Corrin Genovese, Missouri: Genovese had a difficult time finding a place in the batting order at times early in the season. Missouri would have a difficult time winning without her in it these days. Her first-inning grand slam in Sunday's finale at Florida paved the way for a 5-4 victory that gave Missouri a key series win. She was 4-for-10 in the series and 6-for-13 in the week. If it's a surprise that Missouri is tied for second in the SEC, a big reason is the junior who is hitting .466 with a .690 slugging percentage and .492 on-base percentage in conference play, all team bests.
Matley Jones, South Dakota: It would save us all some time to just run through the instances in which Jones didn't reach base this past week. Helping South Dakota become the latest team to add to Iowa State's mounting woes, Jones went 6-for-8 with three doubles in a midweek doubleheader split against the Cyclones in Ames, Iowa. And in a weekend rivalry series, the junior went 5-for-9 with three more doubles and three RBIs in a sweep of South Dakota State. That works out to a .647 batting average that moved her season average from .268 to .318 in a matter of days.
Mackenzie Popescue, Arizona State: She will always be overshadowed by Dallas Escobedo, but it's Popescue who trails only UCLA's Ally Carda and Oregon's Cheridan Hawkins with a 2.19 ERA in conference play. She helped her overall ERA this past week by throwing a pair of shutouts against Southern Miss. Her work included a five-inning no-hitter in the series opener, the first no-hitter of her career, and a three-hitter over the full seven innings in the finale. At 20-1 this season, she has already done a job by keeping Escobedo fresh, but it's selling her short to expect her to disappear in the postseason.
Hallie Wilson, Arizona: As is the case most weeks, take your pick of Arizona hitters. Courtney Rodriguez hit her first three home runs in a midweek doubleheader against New Mexico State. Chelsea Goodacre reached 20 home runs for the season. For goodness sake, the Wildcats hit eight home runs in one game against Utah. But Wilson gets the nod for her work from the leadoff spot. Three of her four hits in the weekend sweep of Utah left the park, and she went 8-for-15 with five home runs overall on the week. A leadoff hitter with a .793 slugging percentage sets the tone for this team.