The Beef – Switzy...be honest. Were you re-thinking your 4-1 prediction for the weekend after the Tigers were dropped by such a convincing score against Michigan in the weekend opener?
Switzy - You would think so, right? But actually, I didn't really rethink my prediction until the Cal game, when Mizzou had to escape a blown three-run lead and a bases loaded situation (and maneuver the dreaded international rules in extra innings) in order to get the win. At that point, Paige Lowary had pitched twice (and poorly) already on the weekend and I just didn't know if there would be enough pitching left to get by both ASU and Baylor.
Of course, that's not to say that the Michigan loss wasn't exceptionally disheartening. After quickly getting the first 2 outs in the 2nd inning, it looked like Mizzou had quite the game brewing. Then HBP, HBP, IBB, single, HR. 5 runs in 5 batters, and Michigan was off to the races. The Tigers didn't do themselves any favors, getting two players thrown out at home plate and failing to get a single run despite having their leadoff batter onboard each of the first three innings. And then there was the 4th - 7 walks in the inning, 3 of which drove in runs for Michigan. Can't do that against anyone and expect to win.
But I digress. My original prediction mindset was either that Mizzou would lose to Michigan and then sweep, or that they would beat Michigan but suffer a letdown against one of the two Saturday teams. Ultimately, I didn't have much to worry about as on Saturday against #17 Arizona State and #22 Baylor they looked every bit the part of a dominant team. What positives can the Tiger faithful take away from this final weekend of early season tournament play?
The Beef - I think you have to talk about having a short memory first and foremost. I think you and I both believe the Tigers to be a team which should certainly make the NCAA’s, will very likely get to the Super Regional round and has a very good shot to make the WCWS. Point being, we think very highly of this team, as does the country for the most part. It is not a team which is typically going to lose 13-0 in five innings and just get handled as they did against Michigan. So to turn around, with three more ranked teams on the docket, and win all those games (even after looking less than amazing against San Jose State) has to be applauded.
The offense continues to roll at a pretty high rate, though there has been SOME regression to the mean (which there HAD to be after the stupid hot start they had). The team is still hitting .377 with a .467 OBP and .584 slugging as the HR totals have started to slow down a bit. They still feature FIVE everyday players over .400 (with Pierce being a potential sixth at .396). And while the search for a consistent ninth batter/second baseman continues, the other eight are all over .300 (thanks to a nice weekend from Mack, who is now up to .304)
Finally for me, the speed remains at such a high level. 52 steals in 54 attempts. Coming into the weekend (and the NCAA stat site is not updated from the weekend), the Tigers were second in the country in steals per game with over three. The fact that Gadbois, Nash and Fagan are into double digits already and can basically steal whenever they want puts such pressure on the pitching and defense, especially because Coach E does not at all seem situated in how he wants to consistently build his lineup. Heck, I believe there was even a game where Fagan started this past weekend, and why not? .458 with 12 walks (and only 2 K’s) and 12 steals makes her an amazing leadoff hitter…if not for all her power as well. If there is something negative about this stat, it was that we were thrown out twice this weekend, which were the first two on the season.
Speaking of negative, what has you raising an eyebrow as we get into the SEC season?
Switzy - If anyone reading this has ever reading anything else I've written about softball, you'll know what's coming. Free. Baserunners. Walks and HBP are the most damaging things that can happen in high D1 softball. Nearly every offense is capable of taking advantage of free baserunners. Last year, we watched both Tori Finucane and Paige Lowary (and less harmfully, Cheyenne Baxter) struggle with control issues. Over 373 innings pitched in 2015, the Tiger staff issued 189 walks and hit 48 batters, for a total a 237 free baserunners - .635 per inning, or nearly 2 for every 3 innings played. The hope was that some extra experience and an offseason of work would help tilt those figures more to the Tigers favor. So far this season for the same three pitchers: 66.2 innings, 39 walks, 6 HBP - ..679 per inning. Of course, once you add in Danielle Baumgartner, the overall numbers improve (102.1 innings, 47 walks and 7 HBP amongst the four Tiger pitchers. .53, or 1 every 2 innings). But Paige Lowary and Tori Finucane in particular are struggling with control in a way that is not sustainable through SEC play. Both have suffered major injuries to be fair, but the improvement will need to come soon for Mizzou to threaten in the very strong SEC schedule.
And speaking of pitchers, there is the continued questions about Tori Finucane. Seemingly supplanted at this point by Danielle Baumgartner, she threw only a handful of innings over the weekend, and although her two against Baylor were effective (2 innings, 1 K, no hits or walks allowed) it was in a very low leverage situation. As were her other two appearances over the weekend - in the SJSU game where Mizzou was up 8-1 and in the Michigan game when Mizzou was losing big. Not only is she not starting, but she's not even pitching in meaningful situations. It's no longer worth speculating on whether it's mental, physical, or both. But it is worth worrying that instead of the deepest staff of the Earleywine era, Mizzou appears to be once again be having trouble keeping their pitchers going full tilt.
Finally I'll just list a few nitpicky things about the offense. Obviously as you pointed out, they are rock solid overall. But there remain some areas in which improvement could be a boost. First is the climbing strikeout rates of Regan Nash and Taylor Gadbois. This is another recurring struggle (for Taylor) that I think illustrates why both Emily Crane and Sami Fagan have gotten play at the leadoff spot in recent games. Between the two they have 15 strikeouts - and they are the only two regulars to have more Ks than walks. For players who have to reach base to have impact, that's a bit troubling. Second is the power numbers you mentioned. Since that first weekend, Rylee Pierce has failed to find much power; Kristen Mack brought the average up but is still sitting on a single HR this season, and Amanda Sanchez numbers fell sharply this weekend making her power outage all the more noticeable. Finally, there's Emily Crane. I hate to point at a .364 average as disappointing...but I think it is a bit. More disappointing is her having only 4 stolen bases on the season. Perhaps it's situational, but the numbers simply haven't come for Crane. Good news is that her 12 walks are tied for the team lead and with only 1 strikeout, she continues to show a good eye at the plate.
So we move, for one weekend, into SEC play against Ole Miss. What will our pitchers be up against in the weekend series?
The Beef - Ole Miss is an interesting case to look at for a next opponent. They are 19-3, but have been able to really load up on some softer opponents, and at home as well (10-0 at home so far). They've got a loss (and a win) against a 13-8 Hawaii, a loss (and a win) against a 12-11 Southern Miss and also a loss against a 12-3 McNeese State. We do have a common opponent in Stephen F. Austin, who the Rebels took down at home by the score of 4-2. Honestly, I think this a decent team, but I dont know that they have really been tested as of yet. To that end, I think their offensive stats are decent, but also perhaps a tad inflated.
What Ole Miss does have is speed. Yes, they have played more games than the Tigers, but they have 69 stolen bases (in 77 attempts) in 22 games. That is north of three and a half per game. Leading the way is Miranda Strother, a junior who is already 17 for 19 on the year, along with a .386 average in her 22 starts. She also leads the team with 13 walks, so clearly putting her on base results in a double or almost triple before too long. Also to be considered is Hailey Lunderman, who has 9 steals in 11 attempts, thanks in part to her .486 average , which leads the team. Interestingly, these are the only two players who have started and played in each game so far for the Rebs. They've got folks like Dakota Matiko, who is hitting .419 in 14 starts and Kylan Becker, who is hitting .406 in 16 starts.
This is a deep team (and perhaps as part of the weaker schedule they have been afforded the chance to play more people). They feature 18 players who have seen action in 10 games or more, with 12 seeing starts in at least 10 games. Perhaps Ole Miss is searching for power, as they have accounted for only 11 HR;'s on the season (no one with more than 2 on the team) with a slugging percentage only at .449. Perhaps it is plate discipline they are searching for, as they have walked 61 times against 99 K's so far. As a team, they are hitting .336, but with a on base percentage only of .410. Lots of speed, probably some decent station to station hitting, but they are striking out too much and not probably getting huge innings without the power and plate discipline.
So the offense has carried some of the load, but what has really earned Ole Miss those 19 wins?
Switzy - It's worth noting that despite a stellar 19-3 record, Ole Miss is currently not even receiving votes for either top 25 poll. So you certainly aren't alone in feeling they haven't been tested yet. This weekend will be a great test of strength on strength, as the Missouri offense comes up against a pitching staff putting together quite a season so far. As with the offense, the Rebs have been able to create depth against their early season schedule. Five pitchers have taken the circle for Ole Miss; three have seen significant innings. As a team, they are throwing very well - a 1.91 ERA, .175 BAA, 104/40 K/BB, and only 4 HR allowed (all by the same pitcher). The likely candidates to face Mizzou are senior Madi Osias, who leads the team with 9 starts and has a 2.11 ERA, and junior Alyssa Clayton, who has 8 starts with a 1.60 ERA. Osias is the one who has given up those dingers, but she also sports the lowest BAA (.164) on the staff and is by far the most likely to strike out opposing batters (59 K in 59 innings). Clayton has a .175 BAA, but is much more of a contact pitcher with only 26 strikeouts in her 43 innings. And although it's not a large number, she has issues nearly as many walks and HBP as Osias has, but in 16 fewer innings.
The defense behind these pitchers is certainly worth noting as well. Ole Miss sports a very nice .976 fielding percentage with no player having more than 3 errors on the season. In total, they've ceded only 5 unearned runs on the year to date. No Ole Miss pitcher has been victimized This could be another test of strength on strength as Mizzou's speed game will hope to rush the Rebs decisions and cause some mistakes. I expect the plan will be to pitch Osias on Friday and Sunday, and Clayton on Saturday. We'll see which team manages to keep their momentum intact.
So we've mentioned the unsettled lineup for Mizzou this season. Coach E is trying seemingly every combination of the primary starters as well as giving a number of players their chances at second base. Do you think we begin to see more consistency in the lineups this weekend or will there be continued tinkering?
The Beef - I think we may see some more tinkering, but I would have to imagine it settles down here fairly soon. The battle between Nelson and Fleming at 2nd base is interesting to me, only because Fleming’s fielding appears to be far superior to Nelson, while the bats currently aren’t THAT far from a wash. I also think he’s got some additional tinkering with his power bats to try to get a few of them going, especially with Pierce and Rathburn having settled down some and Mack/Sanchez still not hitting the long ball. This team without power can (and obviously is) still scoring runs at a pretty prolific clip, but getting some more power back makes them possibly truly unstoppable.
I think this is a good opponent for this team, and getting them on the road may mean we get a tougher team at home, which is always preferred. I really do think a sweep is possible, as I am hoping Lowary will settle in against a good/not-great offense. My biggest question is: How much work will Tori Finucane see? It seems pretty apparent Baumgartner is very much the #2, but my question is more about just how far away is Finucane at #3.
Final thoughts on the pitching and prediction for the weekend?
Switzy - I think it's pretty clear that we'll see Lowary-Baumgartner-Lowary. The only real question will be just how much - and in what situations - we see Tori Finucane. I think it will be a season-long process to monitor her performance and workload; perhaps she'll be in a better position to reclaim starter status later in the year.
Although the games are being played at Ole Miss, I see Missouri as the far superior team here. They probably should sweep, although it's certainly possible to lose one pretty much any weekend in the SEC. I feel good after my prediction last week, though, and so I'm going to say Mizzou has a perfect start to their conference season.