The Beef: Alright, let’s get to the ridiculousness of my lineup prediction.
At the top, I have to believe we stay with what works, and that would be Taylor Gadbois leading off in CF, followed by Emily Crane. As for WHERE Crane will play, I think I might come back to this. Fagan still sits at #3 and I do believe will move to SS to cover the loss of Genovese. Sanchez stays in at #4, but again let’s come back to her field position later. I like Mack in at #5 and we will keep her at catcher.
I agree that Rathburn is the newcomer most likely to see the diamond, and I think we see her start at 1B to replace Roth. I like her batting average, but I will have her here in the lineup since she does not appear to generate too much power. Let’s pencil in Fleming in LF in the 7 spot to start the year. In the 8th spot, it feels like I probably need an OF to finish. Morgan Walters feels like someone he wants to try to start the year, but I had Fleming in LF and Walters had typically played that as well. Let’s swing Fleming to RF and move Walters to LF. Finally, I think I need a DP or 3B to finish up, so let’s put Romaine in there as a bat. I like the idea of Regan Nash (Fr.) as a speedster who can hit being in the 9 spot to wrap back around to the tremendous speed that Gadbois/Crane/Fagan offer, but I am not ready to make that call.
Filling it all in now, I think Sanchez returns to 3B to start the season and Crane will make the move into the IF and back to 2B to cover for Fagan who moves over to SS. That puts Romaine as the DP in this mix.
Taylor Gadbois CF (Sr.)
Emily Crane 2B (Sr.)
Sami Fagan SS (Sr.)
Amanda Sanchez 3B (So.)
Kirsten Mack C (Jr.)
Chloe Rathburn 1B (Jr.)
Natalie Fleming RF (Jr.)
Morgan Walters LF (So.)
Kolby Romaine DP (Fr.)
Before we get to talking about pitching, how do you fall on this Switz?
Switzy227: I'm going to throw a few curveballs here, because I'm going to be way off anyway.
I agree that the top 4 seems set in stone, but I can't get over the annoyance of starting with 4 straight lefties. So I'm going to break that up. Here's my predicted lineup:
Rylee Pierce 3B (Fr.)
Rathburn puts a right handed, high-average bat in the 3 hole, and moving Fagan to cleanup takes advantage of her power and veteran presence. Sanchez moves down a spot, but stays in an RBI wonderland. If Riley Pierce's defense is as-advertised, I could see her taking the 3rd base job and offering some potential power from the lower third. Walters gets the edge over everyone else because of her time last year, but the outfield can be learned. Bange, Reed, and Nash all strike me as potential threats to take that spot. I left Fleming in left because that one great catch in foul territory last season has me convinced that's her position. I might be reading too much into that. And I put her in 9th because she seemed to do well there at times last year.
So I guess that ends our look at the batting situation. Now to the important part of the team - the pitching staff. We have largely known quantities coming back, but a freshman recruit means Mizzou could have 4 pitchers take the circle next season. Pitching makes and breaks in college softball, Beef. Which direction is Mizzou's group likely to take this team?
The Beef: If pitching makes and breaks softball (and I certainly agree that it does), than more often than not, health has made (or broken) Mizzou Softball. Certainly the highs have still been there. Kristen Nottleman carrying the team in the absence of Chelsea Thomas to a CWS. Thomas herself doing everything she could in a fully healthy year, finally succumbing to Baylor in that epic CWS elimination-game marathon against Whiney Canion. But then the added lows of the past couple of years where a sudden lack of Tori Finucane exposed the Tigers in 2014 in the Regionals and then Baxter and Finucane traded injuries through the Regionals and Super Regionals this past season before MU was eliminated by giving up 17 runs in two games to UCLA.
But having two pitchers was better than having one (2014), and having three pitchers was better than having two (2015), so perhaps having four pitchers will be better than having three in 2016. Back will be everyone who threw a pitch for the Tigers last season. That will include Tori Finucane, who will enter her junior year looking to take a step forward from a so-so sophomore season which saw her ERA and WHIP come up from her freshman year, but still saw her able to shut down high-level opponents. Also returning will be to-be-sophomore Paige Lowary, who shined for much of the year as a true frosh before running out of gas at the end of the year after a debilitating case of illness during the Regional round. She has turned some heads through on the summer circuit with one version of Team USA, and her continued development and improvement bodes well for the Tigers.
Also coming back will be Cheyenne Baxter, who will also be a junior. Baxter was a bit enigmatic last season, as she was clearly capable of pitching against ranked opponents (her outing against ND early in the season rings a bell), but would also sometimes struggle in those mid-week games where we certainly hoped she could help take innings off of the arms of the other two. Hopefully Baxter’s solid performance in the Regional round will help spring board her to some better things this coming season as she will be relied upon for the same task of eating some innings when and where she can. Also added to the mix of potential inning-eater will be frosh Danielle Baumgartner from nearby Mexico, MO. Baumgartner is a gamer who battled through injury her senior season (torn ACL) and still rallied her team to a 3rd place finish in state. Can she crack the rotation and share some of that responsibility with Baxter to perhaps take all the load off Tori and Paige during the week? If that can happen, who knows how it will potentially help us avoid the injury bug which has plagued our pitching staff in so many recent seasons.
What say you, sir Switz? Care to share any thoughts on if you think Paige will perhaps pass Tori as ace of the squad this season?
Switzy227: You are certainly on-point, Beef. One interesting note about the injury/illness issues, though, is that none of them were related to being overworked. As nice as it would be to have Cheyenne Baxter take a bit of a step forward and/or to have Danielle Baumgartner come in ready to eat a few innings, ultimately the biggest factor still seems to be good fortune. And successful as the Tigers have been in the past many years in softball, good fortune has been sorely lacking for their pitchers.
Tori Finucane, of course, returns not only from the minor injuries that disrupted her effectiveness early in the season, but from that horrendous ball to the face that stunned the entire UCLA softball stadium into absolute silence. Physically, I don't doubt her ability to rebound, but it is harder to predict the mental side of the game. There's no way of knowing that until they start really playing again, though, so I intend to be optimistic until shown otherwise. She shined as a freshman - even more so than expected - and flew a bit under the radar during her better performances last year. I think if she stays healthy, she will prove a very tough pitcher for the SEC to face in 2016.
All that said, I think Paige Lowary has the makings of a true superstar and should end up as the number one pitcher, possibly from the get-go next season. She was electric in some of her later starts, and I believe she learned a lot about what it takes to be a big-time pitcher during the Tigers late season run. Additionally, she showed tremendous guts working in the circle after being so beat up by her stomach illness. She will spend much of the offseason developing secondary pitches and a greater command of the zone, which should only make her better.
Coach Earleywine suggested that both pitchers needed to get tougher last season, that they let too much interfere with their performances at times. I believe that's a statement they will take to heart, and bring perhaps the largest upside to a Mizzou rotation in some time, having two top level pitchers and possibly two other pitchers capable of lightening the workload.
The Beef: Well…it is a statement the two will either take to heart or it might result in Coach E getting reprimanded again by the NFCA.
So talk to me about the goal of this team next year? Without getting too in depth about the rest of the SEC (and considering we don’t even know which teams from the SEC we will have to play), does the goal of the WCWS remain the same and attainable? The Tigers came up just short last year in falling in the Super Regionals after not even making that round the previous year. Seems like this could be a year with a nice mix of important seniors, experience in the pitching circle, but still some youth all around that the Tigers might be able to peak a bit and get back there?
Switzy227: Don't get me started again on the NFCA....
As for the goals next year, I think WCWS is definitely attainable and needs to be the goal. I know how disappointed the 2015 senior class was not to make it, and I think the 2016 group will carry on that motivation. The Tigers finally put together offense in the post-season after all those years of watching Chelsea singlehandedly keep the Tigers in low-scoring affairs - now if the pitching holds up, the sky is the limit. I think next year's team, with even regular levels of improvement, has every chance to be even better than the 2015 team. And I think the roster situation for 2017 and beyond - losing Fagan, Crane, and Gadbois - means that offensively, this is the year to peak.
As you mention, it's too tough to predict the SEC at all this early in the offseason, but it is worth noting that 3 of the 6 teams ahead of Mizzou in the SEC standings in 2015 graduated more seniors than the Tigers this year - Mizzou had 4, Alabama had 5, Florida had 6 (including Lauren Haeger), and Auburn had a whopping 9 seniors. And one of the other teams (Georgia) equaled Mizzou's 4. That doesn't take into account transfers, about which news tends to be pretty scarce from official sites.
My bottom line is this: if you were at all excited about Mizzou softball in 2015, I believe you should be even more excited about 2016. I believe this team will improve and challenge for even greater things led by their duo of wonderful young pitchers and a rock-solid offense.
Anything to add before we wrap up this "before everyone gets distracted by football" version of RMN's softball coverage?
The Beef: I think 6,000 words is probably enough, and it is not as if you and I won’t get back together during/after the fall season to talk about what we learned from the annual crushing of local JUCO’s. And of course we will back around again just after the first of the year, as the season will only be a short, six weeks away at that point. We will be better suited to break down the schedule and some of the opponents by then as well. But for now, let’s let folks get back to being distracted by football