My usual sparring partner - The Beef - is indisposed with something called "work" for a while, so I'm flying solo in the softball recap/previews. We'll get back to the usual back and forth as soon as he's able to do so. In the interim, you and I can continue to follow the Tigers' progress.
The Missouri Tigers suffered their first ever SEC sweep at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs. The Tigers were outscored 28-7 in the three games and at one point, Georgia scored in 10 consecutive innings (7th inning of game 1, all 5 innings of game 2, and the first 4 innings of game 3).
There's not much good to grasp from that performance, but there were a couple of small things to note. Blake Toppmeyer reported that Coach E would prefer to see the pitchers giving up home runs than keep walking batters. In the course of the Georgia series, the Tigers issued only 6 total walks. However, they were hurt by 5 wild pitches, and only managed to strike out 11 batters. On the batting side of things, Amanda Sanchez broke out of a slump with 2 hits in the 3rd game.
I wasn't able to watch any of this series. I'm okay with that. As a whole, it seemed to confirm (and perhaps heighten) many of the fears we've been having about this team's ceiling. Of course, the pitching was a problem as evidenced by the numbers. But sneakily beneath the surface lies another issue: the Tigers simply failed to get runs home. In the 4th inning of game one, Kirsten Mack and Rylee Pierce both walked and then advanced on a wild pitch. The Tigers had runners at 2nd and 3rd with no outs. However, they failed to get any runs in and the game remained tied at 3. That sequence was an unusual case, but remains representative of the offense's inability to string together consecutive hits and build up runs against Georgia.
On Wednesday, Missouri hosted Gregg Marshall and Wichita State for a mid-week doubleheader to close out the Tigers' season-long homestand. Mizzou needed a bounce-back, and thanks to some words of wisdom from Coach E, got it. In game one, the Tigers piled on 11 runs between the 2nd and 3rd innings which included homers from four different Tigers en route to an 11-0 win. Danielle Baumgartner and Cheyenne Baxter combined for the shutout. The pitchers also combined to walk exactly zero batters.
In game 2, the Tigers scored in 5 of the 6 innings in which they batted, adding two more HR (Crane and Mack each notching their second of the day), and the top 4 hitters in the lineup combined for 10 hits, 6 runs, and 6 RBI as Mizzou emerged with a 9-2 win. Paige Lowary pitched four innings, giving up 3 hits and 2 runs (and walking 2), while Finucane and Baumgartner combined for 3 shutout innings in relief.
It was a much needed return to form on both sides of the game for the Tigers, and happened against a pretty decent team; Wichita State is ranked in the top 60 in RPI and came in with 6 regulars hitting over .300 on the season as well as a very solid K-BB ratio. It was great to see the Tigers hold their offense to only a single 2-run HR and to see the Mizzou offense awaken to early-season form.
Mizzou hits the road for the first time since March as they head to face 12/14 ranked Kentucky, who are coming off an impressive three-game road sweep of LSU. Kentucky scored only 6 times in the series, but it's easy to win when you give up nothing. Yes, LSU scored no runs in three games, at home. And LSU is the 11th ranked team in the country. So let's look at Kentucky's pitching...
Kelsey Nunley and Meagan Prince are the Wildcats dual aces and possibly the only pitchers Missouri will see in the series. Prince has more starts, but Nunley has more innings; both are very impressive. Nunley leads the duo with her 0.97 ERA and .167 batting average against. She has 142 Ks in 115 innings pitched, and has only walked 31 batters. She has given up a total of 24 runs this season, and only 16(!) have been earned runs. Prince just trails Nunley in IP (108) but has her own great numbers: 1.55 ERA, .199 BAA, 91/23 K/BB, and only 5 HR allowed.
This will be a very difficult matchup for Mizzou and one that will really test the ability of the Tiger hitters to make contact and give themselves a chance. Kentucky sports a pretty good defense (.968) so there probably won't be many mistakes. The key is likely to be whether or not the Mizzou pitching can keep things close enough.
They will be facing a Kentucky offense that...is decent. Their stats actually look similar to those of Wichita State (although obviously against much stronger competition). The Wildcats' team average is .290 and six regulars are over .300. Sylver Samuel is the leadoff/speed threat, batting .379 and swiping 16 of 20 SB on the season. No other regular is over .340, however, and while Kentucky does exhibit very good patience at the plate, they also strike out frequently (163 on the season). They are not much of a power team, having only 32 HR on the season (or, as much as Crane, Fagan, and Rathburn have amongst themselves). Only Samuel and Katie Reed display much speed; no other player has more than 4 SB and the team has 15 caught stealing attempts in only 66 chances.
Since the conclusion of their series against SEC basement-dwelling Arkansas on March 27, Kentucky has scored the following runs: 0, 3, 0, 5, 1, 1, 3, 2, 2. If the Tiger pitching can continue holding them to that level of production, they will have a chance. But if the Wildcats score more than a handful of runs, their pitching is likely to shut it down.
I would love for the Wichita State doubleheader to be a real springboard into a solid back stretch of the season for the Tigers. With four remaining SEC series this season (and a couple non-con doubleheaders), there is still plenty of time for Mizzou to lay claim to contender status and rebound from the last few weeks of mixed results. However, I can't make that claim in two games. I am optimistic, but in true Show-Me fashion, I'm going to need to see a little more. Kentucky brings a middling bat, but their pitching is too good to ignore. I think Kentucky takes the series by a count of 2-1; Mizzou's bats remain just hot enough to take one game. I think we will also see Coach E continue to try pretty much everything in the quest to find the right pitching rotation, or at least a hot hand.
Let's hope that this column next week is all about just how Mizzou's season is turning around.
Until next week, MIZ!