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Mizzou Softball: One Season Ends and Another Begins

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The Tigers closed out SEC and regular season play this past weekend with a match-up against #1 Florida. Find out what Switzy and I took away from that series as we turn our eyes to the SEC Tournament later this afternoon

To what heights will our stubbled leader take us?
To what heights will our stubbled leader take us?
The Beef

The Beef:

Switzy is back with us and it is a good thing, as we have plenty to discuss.

First off, and before we get to the action this past week, how was your trip and your chance to see so much Mizzou softball?  Any take-aways from all the games you were able to attend?

Switzy:

The trip was outstanding and I had a blast meeting so many of my fellow RMNers - even you, Beef.

Seeing Mizzou softball live was certainly a different beast. Unlike football or basketball, you are dealing with a pretty small crowd, and therefore the whole experience is much more intimate than when watching those sports. Standing in roughly the same right field area of University Field for the entire LSU series, I was able to overhear official switzy favorite player Emily Crane yelling out instructions/updates to Taylor Gadbois, I got to observe and overhear warmup chatter for the team, and I got a first hand view of just how fast Paige Lowary throws (note: super fast).

During the games themselves, I took particular notice of a couple things. First, in tandem with our regular commentary on the staff's propensity for walks, I noticed that in at least 3 of the 4 games I watched, the zone was questionable at best. In 2 games, it was pretty awful. That's not to say high D1 pitchers shouldn't be able to adjust, but there are certainly hindrances other than simply skill at play. Second, I was able to really pick out the fine line between winning and losing at this level. In the third game against LSU (9-1 run rule loss), if Kirsten Mack holds onto the great throw from Emily Crane, Mizzou is in the ballgame. Same goes for any number of pitches, and being just this much off in timing or speed, or fortune in where the ball travels. Same thing went for LSU in their losses - dominant though they seemed, they weren't as far out of those games as you would think.

Mostly, I was happy to see these players in person. I got to see HRs from a number of players, a great pitching performance from Paige Lowary, and some great body language from Coach E as he argued for the continuation of the rain-delayed opener against LSU.

So onto the final weekend of the SEC regular season. Mizzou lost 2 of three against the top team in the country, and dropped to 9th in the RPI rankings as a result. It seemed to me that 1/3 was the most likely result, and I was happy to see Mizzou in game 1, and see them fight hard to get almost back into game 2 after appearing to be run-rule ready. What did you think of how they battled the Gators?

The Beef:

Well, you talked a lot about the margin of error and how small it is, and I think that was on full display in the Florida series.  I believe the Tigers let the game winner across in game 1 because a ball was not handled cleanly on a throw home.  May not have been an error on the play, but otherwise that game continues.  I was certainly encouraged by the performance of Tori on Friday night in relief, and then certainly concerned by the same on Saturday.  Paige on Sunday was a big step for her confidence going into money season, and certainly the way the Tigers touched up the Gator pitching has to have them feeling decent.

So before we get into talking about the SEC tourney and how you would approach things, any final thoughts on the regular season?

Switzy:

It's been a mixed bag, but mostly for the better. The offense we worried about has really generated, thanks to the rise of Sami Fagan, the resurgence of Kelsea Roth, one of the top Mizzou freshman hitting seasons ever by Amanda Sanchez, and the consistency of Emily Crane and Corrin Genovese. They've proven themselves against some of the best staffs in the league, and therefore in the country.

On the other hand, where we started the year hopeful for a three-pitcher staff, we've seen Tori Finucane struggle frequently this season, and Cheyenne Baxter become effectively a non-option during SEC play (and, presumably, beyond). Fortunately, Paige Lowary has really picked up her game in recent weeks, and while still inconsistent, she appears to be the team's #1 at the moment.

It's certainly a regular season to be pleased with (especially given the team's relative lack of production loss I'm sure we'll discuss after Mizzou wins the WCWS), but ultimately, like most teams, this team will be judged on what happens after the brackets are set for the big tourney.

Before that, of course, there is the SEC tourney. Mizzou faces off against a Mississippi State squad that it seems they just played. At home, Mizzou took 2 of 3 from the Bulldogs, winning game 1 3-2 and game 3 10-2 (5 innings). They lost the middle game 8-4, thanks to some untimely errors late. What do you think about this opening match for Mizzou, and how does the bracket shape up from there?

The Beef:

Miss St. was an interesting series for the Tigers and one that showed how just a couple of things could push the result of the game one way or the other.  In Game 1, the Tigers took a 3-0 lead to the top of the last inning, but a Roth error (and there were many more of those than we would have expected this year based on her stellar defensive history) allowed two unearned runs off reliever Paige Lowary before she was finally able to close out the 3-2 win.  Tiger pitchers gave up more walks (six) than hits (five singles) in the game.  Game two saw the Tigers down 1-0 headed to the top of the 6th, but errors again derailed the Tigers and reliever  Tori Finucane.  Ultimately, three Tiger errors (two by Alyssa Cousins when Sami Fagan was injured and Kirsten Mack was forced out of the game as catcher) led to five unearned runs (compounded by six more Tiger walks) and the Tigers fell 8-4.  On Sunday, the ship was righted, though the Tigers still had to deal with a Morgan Walters error that led to (you guessed it) two unearned runs.  Tori pitched five decent innings, but again gave up more walks (four) than hits (three singles) and the Tigers walked it off in the bottom of the 5th for a 10-2 win.

MSU would go on to finish the season 35-18 (10-14), as they went 20-10 at home, 12-7 on the road and 3-1 at neutral locations (as Baton Rouge will be).  They hit well on the season, with a team slash line of .321/.419/.509 (Tigers compare at .322/.428/.529).  Most of their regulars are found between .355 (Katie Anne Bailey) and .322 (Caroline Seitz, who leads in HR’s/RBI’s with 13/51).  The team is free-swinging, as they earned 180 walks but struck out 224 times (Tigers were 236:182 in BB:K).  Team speed is VERY comparable to the Tigers, as the Bulldogs swiped 95 bases in 109 chances (Mizzou is 102-111).  59 errors for a fielding percentage of .961 is not great, though it is slightly ahead of our Tigers (.957).  Those errors led to 52 unearned runs, which is the same amount the Tigers gave up.

Turning to the circle, the Bulldogs’ team ERA of 3.63 is half a run higher than the Tigers (3.13).  I would imagine the Tigers see Alexis Silkwood, as she is very much the ace of the team.  At 25-13 in 211+ innings, Silkwood gave up 188 hits and 103 walks, striking out 198.  Opponents batted a respectable .232 against her, but those walks certainly hurt.  She was decent in the Friday game against Mizzou, giving up only one earned run (three total) and six hits over six innings.  MSU used four people in their 8-4 win and then Silkwood was hit early and hard by the Tigers (gave up six runs in the first) in the 10-2 (5) win for Mizzou.

So tough to decide who I think will pitch this game for Mizzou.  If Tori is healthy, because she has the experience at this point (even if she might not be the best of the two), I would throw her against MSU.  But, I certainly also understand the notion of throwing your best in this game, so it honestly would not surprise me to see Lowary.  But I would love to hang on to her arm for a game against #2 seed Auburn.  Shall we take a quick look at that one Switz before we get into predictions?

Switzy:

How Earleywine doles out the pitching assignments is going to hinge on how important he thinks each win is going to be, I would imagine. I don't know, at this point, that just winning against Miss. St. means a lot to the Tigers seeding; winning against Auburn, though, would be big. So I agree that Tori, then Paige would be best. But we shall see...

If Mizzou does get by the Bulldogs, the Auburn team is another previous Mizzou opponent, but from earlier in the year. In that series, Mizzou was shellacked in the first game 14-6 in 5 innings, with Paige Lowary giving up 11 hits, 12 runs (11 earned), 5 walks, and 4 illegal pitches. That's hopefully the type of performance she is past. Mizzou came on in the 2nd game to give Auburn their first conference loss - a 5-4 extra inning win on the bat of Kelsea Roth, whose 2-run home run was a bullet shot. In the final game of the series, Mizzou battled to a 4-4 draw through 6 innings, but gave up a laughable 6 runs in the top of the 7th, thanks to a sole but very costly error by Corrin Genovese, whose throw home on a bases-loaded grounder was far too high for Kirsten Mack to be able to grab with her foot on the base. Mizzou's (almost inevitable) rally fell short in the bottom of the inning, leading to a 10-8 final.

Since that series, Auburn has continued to handle a difficult schedule pretty well. They took 2 of 3 against Tennessee and at Texas A&M, 1 of 3 against Alabama, swept Arkansas (surprise!), and took 2 of 3 against LSU. They ended up just shy of grabbing the #1 seed from Florida for the SEC tourney. They continue to be a bat-driven team, with an impressive 93 home runs on the season, including double digits from 5 players, and 17 or more from 3 different players. Tiffany Howard and Emily Carosone are both hitting in the .470s. Yes, that's a 4. And Kasey Cooper is also above .400. As a team, they are slashing .356/.473/.618. Yikes. They rarely bother stealing bases (22/25 on the season), and while they do swing freely, with 228 strikeouts on the season, they also have 284 walks. And they play very solid defense, with a team fielding percentage of .977.

If one manages to keep their bats from dominating, though, their pitching can be hit. A game against Mizzou would be Auburn's first of the tourney, so we would expect to see staff ace Oh Wait, They Rotate Three Pitchers. Rachael Walters has 17 starts and the most IP, while Marcy Harper also has 17 starts, but the fewest. Lexi Davis has 20 starts, but is in between in total innings. Walters sports a 3.03 ERA, Harper a 3.76, and Davis a 4.23, respectively they allow .246, .248, and .263 BA to their opponents. None of the three is a power pitcher, all averaging well under a K/inning. A lot would depend here on the mindset of Auburn HC Clint Meyers - who you might remember from arguing just petulantly enough to get a call changed during the Mizzou series, much to the chagrin of noted cool customer Ehren Earleywine.

If Mizzou were to get by both teams, they would face off with whoever emerges from the trio of Alabama, Georgia, and Ole Miss. Or, in other words, Alabama. So with all this great info, Beef, what do you see as the most likely outcome for the Tiger ladies in the SEC tourney?

The Beef:

Well…if we are looking at the tourney from the standpoint of what Mizzou needs to do to be in a place to get a Super Regional-level (top-8) seed, I think they need to win at least two (MSU and Auburn) and then they may need some help from the ACC against Florida State and the Pac-12 against UCLA. If they manage to win three games and make the finals, I think they may not need as much help.

Gosh…the line between an early out and a long run for this team seems remarkably thin considering how good the Tigers have the ability to be.  If Tori and/or Paige are on (and buffeted by an ump with a fair strike zone J) and we keep the errors down to limit the extra pitches, this team has proven it can beat anyone.  But those tight calls at the plate and those miscues in the field have quickly derailed a number of games this year and when you get to this part of the season…it is damn near one-and-done (SEC Tourney obviously, and a loss in the WCWS can be tough to overcome)

Most likely would be playing to the seed and beating MSU later today, but falling to Auburn tomorrow. However, I think we sneak that extra win out against AU before dropping to UA on Friday, leaving us to sweat out our seeding. What say you Mr. Switz?

Switzy:

I agree on 1 win, 1 loss as the most likely course. But I also think this team is confident right now. Their hitting hasn't really faltered much all season (since it got cookin') and they came justthisclose to handing all-world Lauren Haeger her first loss of the season. So I think if they get to Auburn, they can win that game. Alabama....I don't know. I'll go with your prediction overall. Two wins for the ladies during the conference tourney. It'll be fun seeing how the tournament committee puts it all together; seems there's always a little surprise once the brackets come out.

MIZ and Go Tigers!

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