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May 25, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Jackie Traina battled the Michigan Wolverines.
She fought the pizza-oven heat that settled over Rhoads Stadium on a blistering Friday afternoon.
Mostly, the University of Alabama softball team's ace pitcher tussled with herself.
Traina won all three battles, with a little help from her friends, to lead the Crimson Tide to a 4-3 victory over Michigan to win the Tuscaloosa Super Regional and clinch a berth in next week's Women's College World Series.
Alabama (55-7) will play either Tennessee or Georgia next Thursday in the opening round of the World Series in Oklahoma City.
And it will do so in large part because Traina would not allow UA to lose.
"She's got that uncanny ability to not worry about stuff," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "It doesn't get to her."
The sophomore from Naples, Fla., didn't have her best stuff. Heck, at the start she barely had any stuff at all.
Traina (37-2) gave up one run in the first inning and two more in the second. One of the nation's hardest hurlers, who usually throws above 70 mph, was flat. Her pitches didn't move, and she struggled to reach much above the middle 60s on the radar gun. A power pitcher ranked 11th nationally in strikeouts didn't strike out a batter until the 13th Michigan hitter that she faced.
"I came out and wasn't throwing the best pitches I could throw," Traina said.
Michigan's Amanda Chidester knocked a first-inning pitch out of the park for a home run. After Alabama answered in the bottom of the first on catcher Kendall Dawson's sacrifice fly to tie the game, Michigan's batters stayed on top of most everything Traina threw.
Stephanie Kirkpatrick, Lyndsay Doyle and Bree Evans strung together consecutive singles that, coupled with an Alabama error, pushed the Wolverines' lead to 3-1.
It looked like Michigan (42-17), which lost Thursday night's series opener, was going to run away with the game and force a decisive third game. And with Traina getting rocked, Alabama was on the ropes.
Suddenly, whatever it is that made Traina the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year kicked in and took over. She sat down 16 of the last 19 batters she faced, giving up just one more single and a couple of walks.
Traina drew fuel from Alabama's offense. Jennifer Fenton beat out an infield single in the fifth inning to spark the Crimson Tide, and Kaila Hunt bashed a home run over the fence in left-center to tie the game.
Alabama's offense awoke after Murphy adjusted UA's strategy against Michigan left-hander Haylie Wagner (32-7), moving batters forward in the batting box and a little farther away from the plate.
"We had that talk (before) the fifth inning in the dugout and said we're going to go in a different direction," Murphy said.
From that point on, Traina frequently topped the 70 mph mark. She notched four of her five strikeouts after getting the pick-me-up from UA's bats.
"I put my foot down and said to myself, this is not going to happen," Traina said.
Alabama's decisive run came in the sixth inning. Dawson hit a leadoff single and was replaced by pinch runner Danielle Richard, who moved to second on Danae Hays' sacrifice bunt. Then came left fielder Kayla Braud, who turned on an inside pitch and scorched it down the line and into the right-field corner for an RBI single that gave Alabama the lead.
"I knew that I had to get it out of the infield," Braud said. "I just dropped my barrel and drove it through the infield."
Traina struck out the final batter with a 71 mph heater, touching off a celebration on the field and among the 2,557 in the stands.
Alabama players, however, aren't done. Having already won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title and the SEC tournament championship, they want to add to the trophy case.
"We have the talent and everybody's on the same page," Braud said. "When that happens, we have a really, really good chance of winning it.
"And that's the thing: when you got to the World Series, it's whoever plays the best -- not the team that's best, but who's playing the best. It's up for grabs. We haven't peaked yet. I think we're on our way."
Next stop, Oklahoma City.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.