The end of the regular season is coming up quickly for Mizzou softball, so after the usual review/preview spiel, I'll be taking a glance at what Mizzou's chances at hosting a regional again this season.
Mizzou visited Kentucky, and managed to meet my prediction by taking one of three from the Wildcats - although they stuck to a grand Mizzou tradition of meeting expectations in the most frustrating possible way.
In game one, Tori Finucane started but recorded only a single out, giving up 5 hits and 5 runs to put Mizzou in an early hole (and after a promising start for Mizzou in getting a 1st inning run of their own). Danielle Baumgartner relieved Finucane for the next few innings, and although Kentucky plated another run in the 1st and one more in the 2nd, she then settled the game down. Mizzou fought back with two runs in the 3rd and three more in the 4th, but wasn't able to get the tying run in and dropped the game 7-6.
In the 2nd game, Paige Lowary pitched around baserunners for a complete game 9-2 victory. Lowary struck out six while walking three (and throwing three WP) but Kentucky stranded 10 runners. Meanwhile, in her first collegiate start, Kolby Romaine threw her hat into the ring for becoming the permanent 2nd baseman by going 2-4 with a HR and 3 RBI. Kentucky contributed to the big win by committing six errors, which led to five unearned runs for the Tigers.
Lowary's solid performance in the 2nd game earned her the nod again in game three of the series, as she squared off against Kentucky ace Kelsey Nunley. And this one turned into quite a pitcher's duel. After a Regan Nash RBI single in the 2nd, Kentucky answered with a solo HR. Then after an Emily Crane shot to dead center in the 4th, Kentucky responded again with a sac fly in the bottom of that inning. But in the 6th, Kentucky got a second solo HR and the Mizzou offense couldn't get anything to happen with runners on base. Mizzou stranded 11 and dropped the game 3-2. Lowary did end up with one of her better outings in a while, however, giving up only four hits and three walks in 6 innings of work.
Mizzou bounced back quickly with a doubleheader against RPI #175 Iowa at Iowa City. Game one was all Mizzou in a 7-1 victory. The Tigers put up runs in each of the first three innings and added a 2-run HR from Kolby Romaine later to pad the cushion. Taylor Gadbois had three hits and three SB, and Sami Fagan drew three walks. In the circle, Tori Finucane handled the first three innings, giving up two hits and one run but struggling a bit with control (two walks and two WP) as she has done most of the season. Cheyenne Baxter earned the win with four innings of shutout relief, giving up only a single hit.
It was more of the same in the 2nd game as Mizzou again scored in each of the first 3 innings to take a quick 7-1 lead. The catalyst was official switzy favorite Emily Crane, who hit 2 HR to add to her team leading total and drove in 5 of the first 7 Mizzou runs. Iowa would get a few back in the 4th after a Tiger error, but Mizzou put it away with four more in the top of the 7th for an 11-4 win. The first five batters in Mizzou's lineup combined to go 13-20 with 9 runs, 10 RBI, 4 doubles, 2 HR, and 4 SB. In the circle, Danielle Baumgartner got the win after going 4 2/3 innings, allowing 5 hits and 4 runs (only 1 earned run) and striking out 1 batter. She also avoided issuing any free passes! Paige Lowary wrapped up the game, giving up only 1 hit in her 2 1/3 innings, while striking out 3 and also avoiding any free passes!
Coming Up Next
The Tigers return to CoMo this weekend for the final part of the truly difficult portion of their schedule. The SEC is a loaded conference in softball; SEC teams are #1, 4, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 19, and 23 of the RPI top 25 (Mizzou is #12). In the previous conference series for Mizzou, their opponents have been ranked #6, #16, #10, and #12. And that difficulty has come through in the results as Mizzou has managed only a 4-8 record, winning only one of the four series. This weekend, Mizzou will host the final ranked team on their schedule, #17 Texas A&M. (They finish at unranked Mississippi St. and finally at home against unranked South Carolina.) And given a rocky history between Ehren Earleywine and A&M coach Jo Evans, this one could be interesting. Note: This weekend's games run Saturday through Monday, with each being broadcast on an actual ESPN TV channel. So tune in!
The Aggies come into this weekend with a record of 33-11 with non-con losses to #7 UCLA and San Diego State in the early part of the season. They started conference play by taking 2 of 3 from then-#4 LSU, but were swept by Georgia and Tennessee on either side of their own sweep of Arkansas. Last weekend, A&M dropped the first two against Alabama, but run-ruled the Tide in the final game of the series. Worth mentioning: This is an important series for the Aggies also, as their final two opponents are #1 Florida and #2 Auburn.
Scouting Report - Texas A&M
The Aggies hit. They hit .343 as a team. Eight regulars and three part-timers are hitting over .300. As a team, they have 64 HR, including 3 players in double-digits. They walk more than they strike out (207/182), which leads them to an absurd .457 OBP and .575 slugging %. And finally, they have Keeli Milligan and her 48 stolen bases (in 51 attempts), and 89 total steals for the team.
In the circle, though, A&M has some problems that look similar to Mizzou's problems. They rely heavily on freshman starter Samantha Snow, who has made 27 of their 44 starts on the season. She carries a 3.43 ERA and allows hitters a .257 average on the season. She has struck out 133 in 153 innings, but also walked 87, hit 13, and thrown 15 wild pitches. The Tigers will likely see some of both Trinity Harrington and Katie Marks as well; they have similar ERAs in the 3.6X range and have each thrown a tad under 50 innings. Neither is a strikeout pitcher, but Harrington has better control and more starts on the season, and is the most likely to start game 2 of the series.
Prediction and Final Words
This one is going to be pure strength on strength, as the teams match up quite well at the plate and quite evenly, if not really well, in the circle. Lowary's solid performance last weekend seems to indicate that she's going to be given the ball a little more going forward, assuming she is healthy. A late-season surge - as she had last season - would be key for the Tigers, but until it happens, we have to assume we may well see some 12-10, 9-8 type games this weekend. Given that these are home games for Mizzou, I'm going to predict that the Tigers manage to win 2 of the 3.
Talk has begun about whether or not Mizzou can put themselves in position to host a regional again this season. With only 11 games left in the regular season, now is the time for Mizzou to make that push. In RPI, Mizzou is a comfortable #12. However, their final opponents are unlikely to drive them too much higher in that regard. In the polls, Mizzou is running #19 right now, with this weekend's series the final games they have against other ranked foes. In conference, Mizzou is 6-9, with 9 games to play.
I think Mizzou still has the chance to host a regional (top 16 in the tourney, for the uninitiated) but not a super-regional (top 8). However, in order to do so, they will need to put a little distance between themselves and a few of the teams ahead of them in the coaches and writers polls. At present, although Mizzou is #19, their 31-12 record is within no more than 3 games of the teams ranked #10 through #18. Given that five of those teams are SEC, and therefore likely to get beat up a little along the way, a sustained run of wins in the easiest part of Mizzou's conference schedule could help them leapfrog a few squads and return to the top 15 in the polls, which would help greatly in solidifying that ranking.
Wins this weekend would be particularly helpful in raising Mizzou's record against top 25 opponents (currently sitting at 6-10). But looking in the aggregate, I think that a 7-2 run in the remaining conference games - along with a doubleheader sweep against RPI #236 SE Mo St.) would be sufficient to position themselves in that important top 16. Of course, they'll also have the chance to enhance that in the SEC tournament where, while seeding is too fluid to predict this early, they may well have to face one of the top 3 seeds if they can win an opening round game.
After this weekend, and the final non-con DH of the season next Wednesday, we'll have a much better sense of the possibilities for the Tigers. And we'll review it all right here next week. Go Tigers!