With the Beef off on a magical excursion this week, I'm flying solo to update you on the state of Mizzou softball. Let's start with a brief recap of last week's action.
Mizzou led off their play with a 17-5, 6-inning win against Illinois at Lindenwood University on Wednesday. They were sparked by 5 HRs, including two from Amanda Sanchez and a game sealing grand slam from Kelsea Roth.
Over The Weekend
The Tigers then returned home for an SEC matchup with 8/9 ranked, conference-leading Auburn. Auburn's spectacular offense was on full display in the Friday opener, as they rocked Paige Lowary for 12 runs in 4.2 innings pitched en route to a 14-6, 5-inning win.
Mizzou bounced back nicely in the Saturday night contest, with Tori Finucane pitching much more like last year's SEC freshman of the year. But the Auburn long-ball abilities (they had five hits total; three were homers) kept them in the game and gave them two different chances to clinch it. But Mizzou tied the game in the bottom of the 7th with a clutch RBI single from Taylor Gadbois, and then got a two-run dinger from Kelsea Roth for the walkoff victory in the extra frame. Final score: Mizzou 5-4 in 8 innings.
In the rubber match, the weather kept scores relatively low for a good part of the game. Tied at 4 going into the 7th, a costly error from Corrin Genovese allowed Auburn to gain the 5-4 lead, and then back to back HR, the first of them a grand slam, put the game all but out of reach. Mizzou managed four runs of their own in the bottom of the inning, but never truly threatened to complete the comeback. Auburn victory, 10-8.
What We Learned
Despite Mizzou's (now) 8th best RPI in the country and 22-7 overall record, the only thing that matters right now is the pitching. Following the Auburn series, the Mizzou staff is now posting a overall 3.30 ERA and a .249 opponents' batting average. In SEC play? 6.09 ERA (3rd worst in the conference) and .296 opponents' batting average.
Tori Finucane flashed last year's skills for, effectively, 10 innings of pitching this weekend, but experienced a perfect storm in the 7th inning of the final game. Paige Lowary found a little success early on Sunday, but seemed to lose it all at once in the 4th inning. According to Blake Toppmeyer, Earleywine says both pitchers are healthy, and just struggling with location. If that's the case, it is all the clearer that the Missouri Tigers are going to go only as far as Finucane and Lowary take them. With improvement, the ceiling is sky-high. Without it, the Tigers will continue to eke out close wins here and there, but are going to be eaten up by the big bats still to come in conference play (LSU, Florida, Georgia).
With the bats continuing to flourish, the biggest takeaway on offense is the emergence of two candidates for increased playing time for the remainder of the season. The LF and DP positions have been in flux, as Angela Randazzo has struggled mightily (.257 average, 3 HR) and none of the LF candidates had made a strong enough case. But this weekend, Jordan Zolman came off the bench to hit a crucial double in the Mizzou 5-4 win, and then went 2-4 with her first career HR in the series finale. She could start seeing more time as the DP. Meanwhile, Natalie Fleming flashed some nice leather in LF in the Auburn series, and managed to go 1-3 with 2 walks out of the 9th spot. That likely puts her in the lead position for starting duties at the moment. Morgan Walters and Kayla Kingsley are the other primary LF candidates.
Later today, Mizzou hosts SLU for a mid-week game. SLU is currently 20-11 on the season, and 112th in RPI. They have faced a bit of SEC competition, losing two games to Mississippi State at an early season tournament, and dropping one to Arkansas at another. They've only faced on common opponent with Mizzou: Fordham, who is a conference opponent for SLU.. Mizzou won their matchup 7-5; SLU took two of three from the Rams just two weekends ago.
SLU's lineup is led by assistant coach and Mizzou star Ashley Fleming. Fortunately, she's not allowed to take the field against her old team. Instead the team has a solid lineup featuring 5 regulars hitting better than .300, but not much pop (32 HR in 31 games). Alex Nickel's .398/.504/.592 slash line is pretty impressive, and she has walked 21 times to only 9 strikeouts. Allie McFarland hits .368 with 6 HR and a team leading 30 RBI, and Lindsay Friedman leads the team with 8 HR and 10 SB.
In the circle, SLU features a staff coached by all-time Mizzou great Chelsea Thomas. And their ace, Brianna Lore, is doing Coach Thomas proud. She carries a 2.24 ERA and .216 opponents' batting average, and has only given up 5 HR in 93.2 IP.
This is a game Mizzou should win, but Lore could make things tough on the Tigers. It will be important for whoever pitches for Mizzou to establish themselves early, and take advantage of the lower part of the order where the Billikens have a few hitters who have struggled and who have a tendency to strike out. Prediction: Mizzou victory.
Upcoming Weekend Action
On the weekend, Mizzou, still ranked 21st this week despite the recent troubles, will return to the road and head for Athens to face the 8/9 ranked, 29-8 Georgia Bulldogs. Interestingly, Georgia sits well down the RPI rankings, though, at 26th, in part due to their sweep at the hands of Tennessee this past weekend. Here's what the Bulldogs bring to the field...
Georgia features a staff effectively comprised of two pitchers. But they are quite a pair. Primary starter Chelsea Wilkinson is 17-5 with a 1.96 ERA in 24 starts. In her 132.1 IP, she has struck out 154 batters while walking only 24. That's one walk every 6 innings or so. (By comparison, Tori Finucane has 8 more walks in 50 fewer innings.) So the trick is to make contact...but opponents are hitting a lousy .177 against Wilkinson.
Georgia's "other" pitcher is Brittany Gray, who has a lower ERA (1.25), BA allowed (.171), and HR allowed (3, compared to 14 for Wilkinson). Her K/BB ratio isn't quite as stellar, but she's still an exceptional second pitcher. Though swept by Tennessee, Wilkinson and Gray only gave up 11 total runs in the 3 games; that same Tennessee squad lit up Mizzou pitching for 30 runs in 3 games.
At the plate, there is some good news. Georgia does have a team average of .370, but they only have 33 HR as a team. For a Mizzou squad that has been burned by the long ball lately, that's a welcome sight. Instead of the big hit, Georgia makes do with the speed game. The Emanuel sisters – Sydni and Cortni (yes, those are the spellings) – hit .449 and .444 respectively, and have combined to steal 58 bases in 62 attempts. Gadbois double, meet Emanuel double. Georgia has a pair of other hitters over the .400 mark, as well, in Paige Wilson and Alex Hugo (who also leads the team with 12 HR).
Mizzou has a chance this weekend – Georgia's defense is bad (.954 fielding percentage) and without balls flying over the fence, perhaps the Mizzou pitchers can catch their breath. But Georgia is yet another top level SEC squad, and the Mizzou bats are going to have to find their way against elite pitching. While I remain optimistic about this team, I don't think I can predict more than a single weekend victory for the Tigers. But I really want to be proven wrong.