June 1, 2010

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By Jeff Arnold
Special to NCAA.com


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- To judge Erinn Webb and Nicole Kajitani by their statistics alone is to take a major risk.

To overlook the two Tennessee seniors based on where they hit in what is proving to be a dangerous Volunteers lineup is as grave a mistake.

Sure, it would be simple to consider Webb's .228 batting average and write her off as an 8-hole hitter who has been placed there for a reason.

Yet, as No. 2 Michigan learned in Tennessee's Super Regional sweep, Webb and Kajitani can produce just as much as their teammates, all while preparing the Volunteers' underclassmen for what awaits them at the Women's College World Series.

After shocking Michigan, Tennessee (47-13) advances to its first World Series appearance since 2007. The No. 15 Volunteers will face No. 10-seeded Arizona in the first round at Oklahoma City.

In Tennessee's stunning two-game sweep of the heavily favored Wolverines, the lower third of the lineup did the most damage. The 7-8-9 spots scored seven of the Volunteers' nine runs and hit three home runs in the 4-3 clincher.

"We didn't get as much out of the top three as we've been getting, and the middle of the order -- 4-5-6 -- I'm sure they gave it everything they had," Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly said. "It was all 7-8-9, and to have two seniors come up and hit three home runs on possibly the last day of their career is huge.

"It propelled us to the World Series."

Webb and Kajitani represent two-thirds of Tennessee's senior class, along with Tiffany Huff. Despite offensive stats that may appear underwhelming, their willingness to contribute in any way possible presents more value than what their batting averages may suggest.

"I just wanted to really come through for my teammates," Webb said after delivering two solo home runs on a total of three pitches in Friday's clincher. "I hadn't really done that all season, so I was glad I could do it when it counts the most."

Like Webb, Kajitani's .245 batting average doesn't jump off the stat sheet. At only 5-foot-3 and tagged with the nickname "Peanut" her father gave her as a baby, she doesn't typically instill as much fear in opposing pitchers as some of her bigger-name teammates do. But her home run against Michigan wasn't her first meaningful blast. She also homered to spark the Volunteers to an important Southeastern Conference victory over Auburn in April.

Her solo shot against the Wolverines "just wasn't a lucky home run," Weekly said. "She hasn't played a lot, but she came through."

That sits just fine with Kajitani, whose third homer of the season came in a pivotal spot. Despite not hitting for power, Kajitani has often provided the subtle lifts that seniors do to keep national championship hopes alive.

"We all know our roles," said Kajitani, who was shuffled in and out of the lineup, starting only 35 of 52 games as the designated player. "But we three seniors sat down at the beginning of the year, and we wanted to change the culture.

"We haven't been out of regionals the last two years, and we wanted to take this team to the World Series because we can say, 'Hey, this is what it's like.' "

Part of the duty for Webb and Kajitani included providing stability at the bottom of the lineup. Hitting where they do gives them more of a chance to study what a pitcher may have, better preparing them to come through when asked.

Webb said pitchers might be tempted to take the bottom third lightly. But as she and Kajitani proved against Michigan, that's unwise.

"It's D-1 softball," Kajitani said. "You're not going to get a break in the lineup. Our goal is not to break the chain. Maybe pitchers feel like they're getting a break with us and that they can take a pitch off with us.

"But if you do, we're going to jump on it."