The Beef: Since we last talked, the Tigers have been impressive in SEC play, going 6-0 against Auburn and Ole Miss, while weathering some injury issues with Finucane and others. The allowed them to move into a tie for 2nd place (with Kentucky, who has the tie-breaker, and Tennessee, who we do not play). However, the Tigers slipped up against Iowa in a mid-week double-header, and were 7-2 overall in the last two weeks. How do you feel the past two weeks have gone given performance, scheduling and health?
Switzy: All in all, there isn't much to complain about. The losses to Iowa were brutal, but the two SEC weekend sweeps make abundantly clear that Tori Finucane is the key to the team this season. She was unavailable for the Iowa series, and while Casey Stangel pitched decently for a game, she and Alora Marble were both beaten up in the second. Finucane is not only the best pitcher on the team, but her very different style has the ability to make Stangel more effective. With the return of Finucane, as well as a full-strength Gadbois and Crane, I think the team should be able to go forward feeling pretty positive about the past two weeks, even if Stubble is probably still fuming over the losses.
He does fume over those losses. I know the game which Natalie Fleming won on Friday night with a walk-off HR, it was said he barely celebrated the win. Considering the discussion we have had on the board before about how some teams sound when they are on the bench compared to Mizzou, do you ever think his seriousness and business-like demeanor is a little too much for the college softball scene?
I don't. I've never felt the women on the Tigers weren't having fun - they cheer and clap and yell and root on their team just like any other team. They just avoid the chanting and other preconceived ritual-type celebrations that some other teams do. We see coaches with Earleywine's approach in football and basketball (including women's), and I wouldn't be surprised if there are others in college softball of whom I am just not aware. That said, as much as I appreciate the approach during game time, it can seem a little overwhelming in interviews or press conferences. Hopefully he is a touch more chill in his team-only interactions. As long as he continues to attract and keep top-level talent, and avoids negative press (the spats between him and Texas A&M's Jo Evans aren't negative, IMO), I think he should just keep Stubblin'.
So let's turn our attention first to the home stretch of the season. With only two weekends to go, how are the Tigers positioned for the upcoming SEC championships?
The Tigers are positioned pretty solidly for the SEC tourney this season. With 6 regular season games left, Mizzou is tied for 2nd, and has all but locked up a position in the top 6, which provides a first round bye. In fact, the top six (although not the order) appear to be set - Florida, Alabama, Mizzou, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Our remaining six games are against two of those teams (Florida and Alabama). However, that's not the only cannibalism that's happening in the upper echelon. This weekend, all six teams are beating up on each other, as Alabama faces Georgia and Kentucky and Tennessee face off. And in the final weekend, Kentucky and Georgia play. If Mizzou can do reasonably well in their tough series, they are certainly in the running for the 2 (and the luxury of playing a 7-10 seed in their first game of the tourney). However, odds are pretty good that Mizzou is going to wind up somewhere between 3-6, and facing another tough test in their first game of the SEC Championships.
We'll save the discussion for how you think Coach E might manage his pitching staff for the upcoming SEC and then NCAA tournament for another post, but it will certainly be interesting to see how Stangel and/or Marble fair against Florida this coming weekend.
Speaking of the Gators, and to bring us home, tell us about their team and how you think we match up. With us headed on the road, how do you see us fairing this weekend?
Florida is crazy good. Mizzou has a higher team batting average (.315 to .310), in a couple dozen more at-bats - but Florida has scored 64 more runs. They are every bit Mizzou's equal on the basepaths (actually out stealing us by 2 bases so far) and they earn far more free trips to first than the Tigers, by roughly 90 on the year to date. They hit in timely situations, and they hit long (63 home runs to Mizzou's 43 so far). The one good thing for Mizzou is that they also strike out a lot, which could play into Finucane's strength if she can stay in front of the counts. They don't have those one or two players whose stats stand out over the others, but they are solid and deep - only two regular players hit below .270, so even the bottom of the order will present a challenge.
In the circle, Hannah Rogers is the staff ace, but there are two other capable pitchers for any relief duty, and for the middle game (presumably). Rogers' numbers are similar to Finucane: 1.61 to 1.68 ERA, 147.2 to 149.2 IP, 44 to 47 walks, 130 to 118 Ks, 9 to 10 HR allowed. That should be a pretty solid matchup, and hopefully we will see it twice. The remaining pitchers on Florida's roster definitely provide the edge over Stangel/Marble.
I think the Rogers/Finucane showdown probably ends in a draw, and the other game probably goes to Florida. For the optimistic, though, keep your eyes on Finucane, who could pitch Mizzou to 2 wins if she heats up, and the offense, which is certainly capable of an offensive performance that could overshadow any weakness in Mizzou's number 2 pitcher. Most likely outcome is a 1-2 weekend for Mizzou, but I'm still hoping for a big series win.
So later in the afternoon, Alligator Army reached out and we were able to a question swap about the series this coming weekend. Here it is:
1. So after the sweep at the hands of the Tennessee a few weeks ago, the Gators have been on quite the run. Was there something that changed with the team or are they just playing better ball/up to their capability?
I think it's probably a 40-30-30 mix between the pitchers locking in, the bats coming back to life, and Florida playing slightly lesser competition.
Florida managed 10 runs in that series, and gave up 21, which is not good; Florida then lost a 3-2 game to Florida State in extras at home, which is even worse. But since then, the Gators have given up just 16 runs over nine wins, and scored 82. Playing Auburn and Texas A&M instead of Tennessee and FSU helped, no doubt, but that's got more to do with Florida just finding its groove, especially near the top of the order, than the opponents grooving themselves for the Gators.
I think this team we've seen for the last three weeks is closer to what the Gators truly are than the one that was fumbling in midseason, and, especially if Florida sweeps this weekend, I think it might make sense to write off the lull as just that.
2. Talk to me about the next pitcher we might see AFTER Hannah Rogers.
Probably, that's going to be lefty Delanie Gourley, a freshman from Arizona who came into the season on fire and has cooled off of late. Gourley started Florida's Saturday games against Auburn and A&M, and Florida won both games, but she allowed three runs to the Aggies in four innings, and got a no-decision against Auburn after allowing four runs in the third inning and getting lifted for Lauren Haeger.
Gourley's a bit more of a finesse pitcher, while Haeger's got a little more oomph, but expect to see the two of them combine for at least one of the three starts.
3. 250 walks is tremendous. 230 strikeouts is almost the same, but on the other side. Just something that Gator fans have to live with at this point or something they are working on?
More the former than the latter. I think that when you swing away as much as Florida does, and largely eschew slap hitters, you have to take the risks that come with it, and given the home runs and crooked numbers we've seen the Gators rack up of late, I think you take the good with the bad. Having the plate discipline to supplement a lack of slapped singles with walks that work counts and tire pitchers is helpful, too.
4. Thoughts for the weekend? What are your expectations?
I'll lean toward Florida at least winning the series (its home finale, and the final home series for Rogers and fellow senior Stephanie Tofft), and I think it's a fairly decent bet that they sweep the Tigers.