Florida came to Oklahoma City for the 2015 Women's College World Series as the No. 1 seed and favorite to repeat as national champions.
Two games and three days into the competition, the Gators are looking more like Godzilla, or the colossus astride the college softball world — and their Ruthian star is most of the reason why.
Lauren Haeger wasn't always this good.
She was one of 10 players nominated for a national player of the year award as a high school senior in 2011, but she wasn't this good at Florida in 2012, despite slamming 14 homers and leading the Gators in both home runs and RBI, hitting .321, and being named to the SEC's All-Freshman team as an infielder. As Florida's No. 2 pitcher behind Hannah Rogers, Haeger went 15-5 with a 1.85 ERA in 2012 — very good, sure, but not this good.
In 2013, when Haeger was named an All-American and to the All-SEC First Team for the first time, she improved at the plate and regressed — if slightly — in the circle. Haeger had 18 homers in 2013, tied for 17th nationally, and slugged .670 for Florida, just outside the top 10 of the program's all-time single season marks. Her record as a pitcher rose to 16-2, but that was partly a product of her team: Haeger's ERA also rose to 2.35, and she had fewer strikeouts in more innings than she pitched in 2012.
In 2014, Haeger lowered that ERA to 1.79, but became the third pitcher on Florida's staff, slipping behind both the dominant Rogers — whose phenomenal postseason (7-0, one save, 0.67 ERA, six shutouts) powered the Gators to their first national title — and freshman sensation Delanie Gourley, recruited as Florida's next ace. Gourley's 2.67 ERA was higher than Haeger's, but she got more starts (18 to 13) and innings (107.2 to 98.0) than Haeger, and recorded far more strikeouts (127 to 69). Haeger had her best season yet at the plate, tying for sixth nationally with 20 home runs and leading Florida in both homers and RBI for the third straight year, but she wasn't named either an All-American or All-SEC performer, and it seemed likely that she was going to contribute more there than in the circle in her senior season.
That proved wrong, because Haeger took it upon herself to be this good this year.
The story of Haeger's efforts after realizing she was third on Florida's staff again after fall ball — now behind Gourley and freshman Aleshia Ocasio — has been told more than once on broadcasts during Florida's run to this stage of the WCWS. But it bears repeating that Haeger, a senior who was always set to be one of the greatest players in Florida history (Haeger entered 2015 as the only player in school history with 40 wins as a pitcher and 40 home runs), knew part of her job was in jeopardy, and so she rededicated herself and took it back.
The results of her pitching have been nothing short of astounding: Haeger's ERA for the year now sits at 1.22, better than Rogers's career-best 1.23 ERA in 2012, and it was under 1.00 for much of the year. She has 202 strikeouts in 200.2 innings, despite not having fantastic stuff — both Gourley and Ocasio might be better strikeout artists when all is said and done — and has 12 shutouts — more than the 11 she had posted in her career prior to 2015.
Haeger is also 30-1, and practically assured of owning second-best winning percentage in a single season in school history as a result: Stephanie Brombacher (two) and Alyssa Bache (one) contributed unbeaten seasons for Florida as understudies to aces (Stacey Nelson and Rogers, respectively), but Haeger's unquestionably Florida's ace now, is tied for seventh in single-season wins, and would need to lose twice without picking up another win this season for her winning percentage to fall below the .954 mark posted by the 15-1 Gourley in 2014. (Haeger was already eighth on that list for her 16-2 2013.)
And yet: This has been Haeger's best season as a hitter, too.
Not only does she have her best average, a .337 clip that's reflective of her development into more than a slugger, she's led Florida in homers and RBI for the fourth straight year, and has her best slugging percentage, a .685 mark. Haeger can thank the added protection derived from a breakout season by Bailey Castro (one off Haeger's lead in homers, and owner of a titanic .735 slugging percentage) for some of that, but she's quite simply been her best self at the plate this year.
Plus, Haeger's been dynamite in the postseason. Haeger has three home runs and eight RBI in seven games of NCAA Tournament play, just off the four homers and 12 RBI she had in 12 games of postseason play (including the SEC Tournament) in 2014, and she's notched all of those homers and RBI as a pitcher — while also allowing two runs in 36 innings of work.
Remember Rogers's brilliant 2014 postseason? Haeger's ERA this year is almost as good (0.80, but 0.50 in NCAA Tournament player), and she has one fewer win and two fewer shutouts than Rogers posted in one fewer appearance, and more strikeouts (38 to 30) than Rogers racked up in fewer innings (45.0 to 45.2).
Lauren Haeger is having arguably the best postseason by a pitcher in Florida history, one year after unquestionably the best postseason by a pitcher in Florida history — and she's also playing her usual role as one of the best hitters in Florida history. (The only thing she hasn't improved on as a senior? Her play at first, thanks to Walton and Haeger largely cutting that from her list of responsibilities.)
It's mind-boggling. It's Ruthian.
And Haeger being this good made that stat — the one that notes that Haeger and Babe Ruth, perhaps the best baseball player ever, are the only players with at least 60 pitcher wins and 60 home runs at the collegiate or professional levels of softball or baseball, and also the only players with at least 70 of each stat — possible.
But so did Florida's crack PR staff. Sort of.
I didn't see the 60-60 stat until this Tuesday, in Florida's release announcing Haeger being named the USA Softball National Player of the Year, though Florida had included the 60-60 bit in a May 20 article on Haeger being nominated for the award. (Notably, it's not in the USA Softball release of the nominees.)
Since then, it's taken on a life of its own, with ESPN adding the Babe Ruth bit and mentioning it in both WCWS broadcasts of Florida's games so far, and the wildly popular ESPN Stats and Info account tweeting out the updated version, after Haeger cracked her 70th home run in her 71st win on Friday.
Florida softball player Lauren Haeger just hit her 70th career HR, and she has 70 career wins. She's in good company. pic.twitter.com/DkMDB6jI9l— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 30, 2015
This is, of course, brilliant ESPN hyperbole — why shouldn't the network hype an attraction for one of its primary pieces of live programming entering the summer months with a totally outlandish comparison? It's not in the business of comparing apples to apples, just the business of making sure you see how shiny the apples are.
Still, I don't think ESPN would have gotten a whiff of the 60-60 feat, and its Ruthian implications, without Florida noting it in the first place. And that's what the Gators — through GatorZone, and through excellent sports information directors — should do: Emphasize the truly incredible feats that Florida athletes pull off on a regular basis.
But there's one thing that both ESPN and Florida may have missed: Haeger's likely bettered the Babe.
Ruth's 714 home runs were once the most in Major League history, of course — but just 14 of those came while he was in a game as the pitcher. Haeger's status on this is a little murkier — pitchers don't hit in college softball, and are replaced by designated hitters; Haeger is often her own designated hitter — but she has 11 home runs in games in which she has pitched in 2015 alone, and assuredly more than that in the previous years. (I didn't go back to look at box scores to check for sure, but it seems likely she's slammed more than four homers in her dozens of prior appearances.)
Babe Ruth, though he is known as a two-way player, was really a very good pitcher first; only after giving up on staying an ace did he become the Sultan of Swat.
Lauren Haeger is both dominant ace and superlative slugger at the same time.
And she is the talk of her sport — one Florida is poised to climb to the top of, for the second straight year — because she decided to be this good.