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Mizzou Softball: Tigers take on the Tide with Title on the Line

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I don't believe there is a need to be overly dramatic about the importance of these three games, but THE SEASON COMES DOWN TO THIS!

As we did last week, let this preview serve as the weekend'ish live thread for all the softball action.  So before we get into Switzy's preview, here are some links of note:

The Tigers survived a (early) mid-week scare against Creighton, digging themselves into a 5-0 hole before winning game 1 going away, and sneaking out a 2-1 win in game 2.  With that behind us, we turn our attention to Alabama.  I actually thought the Tide would be #1 in the RPI coming into this week, which would have made the third time this season the Tigers would have been taking on the #1 RPI team (UGA and Florida).  However, and even though we beat Florida 2 out of 3 on the road, the Gators stayed #1.  Alabama also finds themselves #5 in the ESPN poll, but perhaps most importantly, they are #1 in the SEC.  They are already "co-champs", sitting at 17-4 (Tigers are 14-7) and a single win over the Tigers this week/weekend out of the three would clinch the title outright.

Switzy – When you think of Alabama softball, what is the first thing that comes to mind at this point?

Consistency is the big thing. Mizzou is rightly proud of making 6 straight super-regionals; Alabama is working on a streak of 9. In those 9 years, they've been to the WCWS 6 times and claimed the 2012 National Championship. This is one of only a few programs in the country who unquestionably have surpassed Mizzou's success over the past 6 years or so.

The other thing, of course, is senior pitcher Jaclyn Traina, and her career 99-18 mark with a sub 2.00 ERA and only a smidge below 1,000 strikeouts. Oh, and I almost forgot about her career .328 line at the plate, with 36 career home runs. Basically, split Traina into two people, and Mizzou would do well to have both of them. Alabama gets her and an extra player to boot.

Tori Finucane was tremendous Tuesday night, coming up shy of a no-hitter, but still winning her 20th game of the season.  And for as good as she has been on the season, she's been even better in the SEC, especially to open the series.  And yet, Traina is 13-0 in 14 starts in the SEC and will likely (and rightly) win SEC pitcher of the year.

So besides Traina, what freaks you out about Alabama?  Where have they been strong?  Where might they be vulnerable?

It starts with Haylie McCleney and her absurd .463 average (the revelatory Taylor Gadbois - .428). McCleney not only hits for average, but for power (8 HR and 10 doubles), and she flashes speed (26 for 29 on stolen base attempts).

What's really troubling about Alabama, though, are their tiers of productions. A quick rundown of Mizzou shows a very dangerous group of five in Gadbois, Crane, Fagan, Genovese, and Randazzo. Then there is a dropoff in production to Sykes, Fleming, and maybe Schkade. Our third tier (Roth, Stephens, Rose, and Mack) hit between .225 and .250. The only notable thing they bring to the plate is Roth's power - 6 HR this season. Their combined power numbers - 9 HR, 10 doubles, and 38 RBI.

At Alabama, the top tier is 8 players deep and the second tier is 4 more. While Mizzou is essentially forced to play 2-3 hitters every night who contribute only occasionally, the third tier for Alabama doesn't necessarily need to even see the field. But if they do, they maintain the edge. Alabama's third tier of production consists of two players who hit .260 and .261 respectively, and have combined for 10 HR, 8 doubles, and 44 RBI. This from players who might not even see the field...

As for a weakness - their usual second pitcher, Leslie Jury, carries an ERA approaching 3, and issues quite a few walks. The middle game of the series should prove very winnable, as Alabama has either lost that game or won by a much lower margin in 3 of their last 4 SEC series. The other weakness...Tori Finucane. She's the real deal, folks. And until proven otherwise, I have to think she has as good a chance as anyone against the tough Alabama lineup. She can singlehandedly keep Mizzou in the game - and she'll probably need to.

So you already started to go down the road of a prediction, but it is time to make one.  Thursday evening (ESPN), Friday evening and Saturday afternoon (ESPNU) against the Tide.  SEC regular season title is on the line if the Tigers can manage a sweep.

How have the Tide done on the road against the tough SEC opponents?  Any glimmer of hope for us in that regard?

There is a little hope. Alabama has faced a very soft SEC schedule, in so far as that exists. They've played 4 of the bottom 5 teams in the league so far, including 2 of them on the road. Against their only higher level SEC team on the road, Alabama managed the same 2-1 series win at Florida that Missouri managed last weekend. The Tide also ran roughshod over Ole Miss early in SEC play (combined score: 26-4), but struggled against Miss. St. a couple weeks ago, dropping the 2nd and 3rd games of the series.

Missouri and Alabama have shared two road opponents - Mississippi St. and Florida. Missouri went 4-2, Alabama 3-3. In the series against Miss St., Missouri put up 17 runs in 3 games against the Bulldogs, while Alabama only managed 10. But against Florida, Mizzou gave up 16 runs while Alabama only gave up 9. So the numbers are mixed - both teams can make a case.

In terms of predicting this weekend, I simply refuse to bet against Finucane. Out of respect for Alabama's lineup, I can't predict the sweep - Alabama should be the regular season champs. But Mizzou has the goods to take two of three this weekend, and that's what I expect to see.