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Mizzou Softball: Previewing this weekend's Auburn series and peeking into the future

Our resident Scrabble'ist and growing MU Softball aficionado switzy227 was kind enough to answer some questions and share his thoughts about the season thus far, season remaining and seasons to come.

The Beef

The Beef: The Tigers survived the mid-week twin-bill against Western Illinois, though they scuttled a bit in doing so. With Emily Crane likely out another couple of weeks and Taylor Gadbois banged up a bit, how concerned are you right now about the offense and how it has been built so far this season (predicated more on speed than power)?

switzy227: I'm a little more worried than I'd like to be. I think we were expecting a little more pop from the Mizzou bats this year, especially from Roth and Randazzo. Fortunately, the revelation of Gadbois and the exceptional averages from the 1-3 hitters (Gadbois, Fagan, and Crane) have lifted the team repeatedly through the season (top 25 nationally in team BA, and top 20 in SB/game). The problem is that Auburn - our next SEC foe - is 6th in the country in HR/game. Florida and Alabama are also in the top 40 in that statistic. The teams coming up are going to hit (and in the case of Florida and Alabama - run just as much as Mizzou). And that's going to put a lot of pressure on our young pitchers to keep things close.

With the speed game, it's difficult to sustain hitting streaks long enough to generate large leads, and equally difficult to make up large deficits. Ultimately, I think the Tigers still have a good chance in these matchups, but I would like it if at least someone on the team could be a consistent long ball threat that would keep other teams worried.

I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the lack of the power game. I talked about (earlier in the season and even before it) that I was hoping for at least three people (and perhaps four) to have or approach double digits homeruns. With only 33 on the team, and with Mackenzie Sykes leading with 6, I don't think we are going to get there. So as you said, it made the revelation of Taylor Gadbois all the more exciting and important. I will say, it does seem strange to be talking about offensive concerns when this team is hitting as well as it is overall at .319, which is a decent cry from where they were last season.

One positive about Crane and Gadbois (both sophomores) going down has been the elevation of Kelli Schkade and Natalie Fleming into the lineup at times to help fill the gaps. Each has responded well at points, with Schkade having a good day yesterday and Fleming with 3 HR's in somewhat limited AB's. To get you away from being worried, how excited are you about the future of this program given how much we are currently relying upon underclassmen currently?

The future couldn't be more exciting. I think many of us were guilty during the Chelsea Thomas years of putting it all on her. Sure there was Rhea and Ashley and so on, but basically the success of the program was on Chelsea's shoulders. Now, there are two young quality pitchers (and another coming next year in Paige Lowary), and a cadre of able bats who are only going to get better. I'm on the record as #teamCrane, but I see a lot to like in the depth of the roster as a whole. In fact, one could argue that the upside of Crane and Gadbois' injuries is the additional playing time and shuffling that Stubble is getting to do with the lineup. Lots of women are getting extra chances against quality competition, and recruiting continues to see Mizzou making roads into softball-rich territories. I suspect we will see new heights for Mizzou softball within the next 2-3 years.

I too am excited for the future and curious to see how Paige Lowary is when she arrives vs. where Stangel is as a pitcher to start next season. I could see an interesting battle for the #2 spot on the staff. If anything, regardless of where Stangel is, I guess I hope there is a competition, since that should only make us better. Staying with Lowary, what can you tell us about the new recruits and how they have been doing (or did) this season?

I did a little digging into the already signed class for next season, and found even more signs for optimism. Here are the highlights:

Paige Bange – IF – Helias Catholic High School (Jefferson City, MO)

Bange ended her high school career (fall ball) with a .455 average. She is (will be?) playing with the KC Peppers club team in 2014, alongside largely Kansas side players. Two of her teammates are also 2014 SEC recruits – Brooklyn Hinz (OF/P) for Kentucky, and Allison Stewart (P/1st) for Arkansas.

Sara Harvey – IF – Staley High School (KC, MO)

Like Bange, Harvey also played fall ball during her senior season, finishing with a .554 mark in 2013 and 1st team All-State honors.

Paige Lowary – LHP – Dallas Center-Grimes High School (Dallas Center, IA)

While Lowary was a junior in 2013, that was her "senior season" thanks to making varsity in 8th grade. She finished as the Gatorade Player of the Year in Iowa, and with over 100 wins in her high school career. Lowary also managed to draw 31 walks behind the plate a couple years ago, and hit over .400 in 2013. She's a fireballer, but if there is an area of weakness for Lowary, it is in control – she walked 98 batters in 191 innings in 2013, somewhat offsetting the .131 opponent’s batting average against her.

Amanda Sanchez – 1st/3rd/RF – Bishop Amat High School (West Covina, CA)

Sanchez is playing her senior season now, although stats are not readily available. During her junior year, she hit a whopping .569 with 30 RBI.

Sydney Sprague – IF – Columbus High School (Columbus, GA)

Sprague has finished her high school ball, setting her school’s career record for HR (but with only 11) and season records for average (.410) and runs scored (37).

Morgan Walters – IF/OF – Buford High School (Buford, GA)

Part of a state championship team in her senior season, Walters played 1st, 3rd, and LF. She was very accomplished at the plate, batting .485 on the season…which she promptly put to shame with her postseason line: .606, 26 RBI, and a 2.152 OPS. In the final four games, she was 6-11 with four HR and 9 RBI.

Looks like a lot of position players. I sort of assume that Sanchez and Walters will be primarily considered for the outfield (especially with Sykes graduating), but a lot of that will depend on defense. Quality gloves are always going to be more valuable in the infield first.

I'm hoping to sneak an early peak at the anticipated 2015 class shortly.

The post season stat line of Morgan Walters is insane. Very exciting.

Alright, Moving to this weekend and Auburn, you made a great point earlier about the potential big bats they have and what our offense may need to do. Certainly, Tori Finucane has good wins against highly-ranked teams, but she and Casey Stangel have been equally susceptible to giving up the HR at times this season. How does the weekend shake out in your estimation, given what you know about Auburn's bats and maybe their pitching staff as well?

The good news is that Auburn's pitching is probably not quite as solid overall as Missouri's. Their ace, Lexi Davis, has an ERA (2.31) about a third of a run higher than Tori Finucane (1.96). Davis exhibits good control (only 39 walks in 145 innings) but she's not exactly a strikeout pitcher (114). Their second pitcher, Marcy Harper, strikes out hitters at a higher rate, but has also issued 58 walks in only 92 innings. Additionally, she carries a 3.12 ERA (compared to Stangel's 2.72). Basically, the Missouri Tigers should be able to get runners on base. If the speed is working and they can string together a few hits, the runs should come.

The bad news is that Auburn's hitting features deadly bats. Freshman (freshman!) Kasey Cooper is hitting .449 with 11 homers and 55 RBI. Branndi Malero is hitting over .400 with 10 homers and 60 RBI. Emily Carosone hits .398, and Morgan Estell has 15 doubles to go with her .381 average. The little bit of sunshine in this is that the team doesn't run - only 13 SB attempts this season (85 for Mizzou), and their other 5 hitters are not high average players. Even so, there is danger at almost every point in the lineup. As you mentioned earlier, Sykes is leading Mizzou with 6 HR; in addition to Cooper and Malero, Auburn features two other regular bats with 6 HR each, and another 3 with 4 each. However, none of those players hit over .300 (and a couple are in the low .200s), so there is the potential to make up for some mistakes with the better hitters there.

As scary as Auburn's lineup looks, though, Georgia's was arguably more so, and Mizzou won 2 of 3 against the Dawgs. I look for that same result this weekend. The Auburn bats won't be stifled, but Finucane should be capable of minimizing the damage enough to give Mizzou's bats a chance, and Stangel will have some momentum after her nice showing against WIU.