Well Switz…it might not have always been pretty, but it was effective enough to do the job. Mizzou came through their Regional unscathed with a Friday win over Indiana State and two tasty victories of Kansas. Obviously (and as seems to regularly be the case for Mizzou when they reach the NCAA’s), the pitching was not as we pictured it for the weekend. Before moving on to UCLA, let’s wrap up the final time we will have seen the Tigers play at home.
It started innocently enough, as a rock solid 5 innings of work from Tori Finucane was bolstered by some bench help - Jordan Zolman broke the game open against Indiana State with a 3 run homer, and (foreshadowing alert!) Cheyenne Baxter came in for 2 innings of relief as Mizzou took the opener 7-0.
Then it was all rivalry renewal for the Tigers as the Kansas Jayhawks claimed victories in two different games to earn the right to get beat. In the winner's bracket game on Saturday - after much (perhaps unnecessary) rain delay - Mizzou started with a well-seasoned strategy: get behind early. In this game it was all-world softball (note: not sarcasm - she was outstanding) 3B Chanin Naudin who blasted a 2-run shot off Tori Finucane to give KU the lead. But Sami Fagan was unimpressed and hit her own 2 run jack to exactly where I would have been standing if I'd been there.
Meanwhile, Finucane was battling against herself for the better part of the game, giving up 9 hits and 4 walks over the course of the day (and throwing in a questionable balk to boot). Kansas regained the lead on a dead center lazer beam (solo HR) by co-Big 12 Freshman of the Year Daniella Chavez in the top of the 3rd. But just as Tori found her groove (retiring 8 batters in a row from the last out of the 4th through the 1st out of the 7th), the Mizzou bats strung together the winning sequence. Single, walk, single scored Crane, and Kelsea Roth continued to roll with a double down the line that scored Fagan and pinch runner Kayla Kingsley. Finucane put two batter on in the 7th, but KU, true to their weekend, could not capitalize.
The second rivalry game was simultaneously more nerve-wracking and less exciting. It can be summarized very quickly - Mack grand slam, KU 15 LOB. Tori Finucane started the game but had a falling out with the strike zone which led to a heroic showing by Cheyenne Baxter - 4 2/3 IP, 0 earned runs. She also hit 4 batters and gave up 4 unearned runs thanks to some costly fielding mistakes, but her performance gave Mizzou the chance (she came in with 2 on and nobody out, and gave up nothing).
KU left the bases loaded 4 times in the game, including in each of the first 3 innings. In the 6th, Baxter got the first two outs easily, but then 7 straight KU batters reached. At that point, Paige Lowary's music (presumably, Slipknot) came over the loudspeaker and she surprisingly took the circle. After a wobbly start, she managed to end the 6th with Mizzou clinging to the 7-6 lead, and in the 7th, KU was only able to put one runner aboard before Corrin Genovese recorded the final out at 2nd, spiked the ball, and further endeared herself to the Mizzou faithful.
Fun times. Now on to business. Mizzou has to travel to the the City of Angels/La-la Land/Home of the 2014 Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings (pick one) to face a very dangerous 7 seed - the UCLA Bruins. This is a team Mizzou has seen, albeit very early in the season. What is in store for Mizzou in the Super Regional round, Beef?
What is in store for the Tigers is a pretty balanced team which was one of the best in the nation this past season. The #8 (RPI) Bruins went 45-10 on the season with three more wins last weekend in their Regional. They were 25-4 at home, with losses against RPI #19 ND, #24 aTm and two against #4 Oregon in league play. And in out of conference play way back in February, the Bruins run-ruled the Tigers 8-0 (6). In that game, Tori Finucane gave up all eight runs, though only four were earned thanks to a couple of Amanda Sanchez errors. The Tigers did get seven hits off of starter Ally Carda, but all were singles and Carda walked none, stranding all seven. Emily Crane and Amanda Sanchez had two hits apiece that day, and Crane did steal a base.
At the plate, UCLA has some really nice pieces and variety in the lineup. At the top of it, they have Junior Allexis Bennett, who has the slash line of .524/.554/.619. 88 hits on the season, with 12 doubles and a couple of HR’s. Strangely, she has only worked 12 walks on the season, but has only 12 K’s at the same time. The speed is there as you might imagine, with 20 SB’s in 25 attempts. Also over .400 is Sophomore Delaney Spaulding. However, her .411 batting average is joined by a .500 OBP and a HUGE .893 slugging, thanks to a team leading 19 HR’s and 69 RBI’s. Spaulding also has a little speed, with 3 triples and 7 SB’s, so she is not just a masher. However, they do have another big bopper with Senior Stephanie LaRosa, who is hitting .379 with 18 HR’s and 63 RBI’s. The team features more balance with Gabrielle Maurice and Gracie Goulder, who each are over .365, but with Maurice with 9 HR’s and Goulder with 17 SB’s in 19 attempts. All told, the Bruins appear to have 7 starters at or over .315 with 82 HR’s and 63 SB’s in 81 attempts.
In the field, the team is very solid, with only 48 errors and a fielding percentage of .969. Those errors have translated to just 28 runs scored for their opponents. If there is a weak link out there, it is Spaulding, who has 15 of the 48 errors to her name.
Good at the plate and good in the field. How do they look in the circle Switz? And how did they make it happen last weekend in their Regional?
You mentioned UCLA's big gun - Ally Carda. All she managed this year was 29-6, 2.14 ERA, and 263 strikeouts in 205 IP. Batters suffered to a .184 average against her. There aren't many weaknesses here, but she did walk 99 batters (which amounts to roughly 3 per 7 inning game) and hit almost a batter per game. She'll almost certainly be the game 1/3 starter for the Bruins, and given that she was the only pitcher used in the regionals, could potentially be on the hook for all three games.
If Carda isn't given workhorse duties, Mizzou could face either of the other 2 UCLA pitchers. Salina Ta'amilo has 11 starts, 68 IP, and a 3.19 ERA. She struck out 59 and walked 35, and gave up a .256 average. Johanna Grauer pitched 83 innings with 15 starts and notched a 3.46 ERA. She had only 51 strikeouts to 44 walks, and gave up a .272 average. Odds favor Ta'amilo if Mizzou sees a different starter, but as will all post-season series, situational usage will determine everything. That or stomach bugs or silly fielding injuries...
In short, Carda alone is sufficient to make UCLA a national contender. But Mizzou has faced - and hit - pitchers of similar status this season. But there's not an aspect of UCLA's game that is going to make things easy for the Tigers.
To quickly recap regional action for the Bruins, they faced each of the three teams in their regional, run ruled two of them, and saw Ally Carda shut all three teams down almost completely. Her combined line for the three games? 18 IP, 12 hits, 8 walks, 2 runs (2 ER), 8 Ks, As a team, they hit 10 HR in the three games en route to a combined score of 21-2. And that was after leaving 17 on base in 18 innings.
So there's no question that this weekend is going to be a true test for the Tigers. But as Coach Earleywine has said, in the SEC, each series is like a super regional. Mizzou has played SEC teams for months now - and sees 5 of their SEC opponents also in the Super Regional rounds. Against those 5 opponents, Mizzou went 6-9. Against the Super Regional field as a whole, the Tigers managed an 8-10 record (wins over Arizona and NC State, loss to UCLA).
There's a chance, theoretically, that Mizzou is completely healthy for this series. How does that affect Mizzou's chances in this very difficult road series?
So that is interesting to me that Carda struggled with control, as she walked none in the early-season match-up. 7 hits is not terrible, though all of them being singles does make it tough to score runs. Certainly am not saying Mizzou should have won the game, but a cleaner game in the field and a normal Carda performance might have made an 8-0 (6) game into a 4-2 loss for the Tigers. It would at least make me feel better about this series J
That said, our offense certainly has come around since the beginning of the season. To your point, we are another week past the ankle injury to Amanda Sanchez and will be a week past the sickness which struck Paige Lowary. In fact, getting the Saturday/Sunday time was about the latest we could have gone, so that should be to our benefit all the same.
I was just about to type that I would anticipate Tori getting the start, but considering the amount of work she had last weekend, I guess I might question that just a tad. Obviously it depends on Paige’s level of health, but I guess either could start and it would not surprise me. I figure if you get to a third game, you go with whomever is feeling best, but there is nothing that says that your second Sunday starter cant be the same as the first Sunday starter, especially if that pitcher forces the game 3 situation and is throwing well.
I think these teams are pretty evenly matched. Mizzou has the edge in speed and UCLA the edge in power, but neither so striking that they don’t even out. UCLA is better in the field and better in the circle except for the fact Mizzou may be able to roll out two quality starters and UCLA did not show their desire to do so last weekend when they would have been taking on competition at a lower level. Can Carda eat up all those innings? Can the Tigers be patient and work some walks? And can the Mizzou defense get the team off the field and keep the pitchers fresh and limit UCLA’s chances? I don’t think Mizzou can compete without Lowary being healthy, but if she is there, I think Mizzou has a shot to at least make this a three-game weekend. What say you to close this out?
I definitely think the offense can hold up against anyone in the country. At this point, the team's success will depend on pitching and defense. It's a fair bet that the week of rest will get Paige Lowary back into top fighting condition. And that's the most important thing Mizzou can have this weekend - both pitchers operating at 100% strength.
If I'm coaching, I almost flip a coin to see who starts game one. Or plan to use both for a few innings each and keep the UCLA hitters perhaps from getting too comfortable. But I suspect ultimately that we'll see Lowary - Finucane - Lowary, assuming no lingering illness/injury. I will also be curious to see if Jordan Zolman gets more chances at the plate and if Kayla Kingsley might make a start or two in left for defense and experience.
Despite one of the toughest schedules in the country, Mizzou only lost back to back games all season - the 2nd and 3rd games against Georgia and the 1st and 2nd games against Florida (ranked #1 at the time). I absolutely expect Mizzou to win one this weekend, and give themselves a chance to go back to the WCWS. If forced, I would say that UCLA wins 2-1. But I truly believe that the Tigers are capable of winning this series if they bring their best game to L.A. Here's to health, victory, and another weekend of watching Corrin Genovese play shortstop.