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Was last weekend a sign that Mizzou Softball's pitching is finding a rhythm?

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It's been a few weeks since Switzy and I have been able to get together. But we are back!

Sami has been decent in SEC play thus far
Sami has been decent in SEC play thus far
The Beef

The Beef - It’s been a few weeks off for us Switzy, as spring break and vacations and work madness have kept us apart for too long.  Let’s get caught up and see just where our Tigers stand since last we chatted.

Going all the way back to the Southwest road trip to New Mexico/El Paso, the team has gone 9-3 (and losing out on action against SLU due to rain I believe) and 3-3 in the SEC. They crushed their way through New Mexico and UTEP, scoring 53 runs in five games (with a pair of run-rule wins against UTEP). Their winning streak (started with their double-header sweep over WIU on 3/16) extended to nine games after a 6-0 win over UNI and a series opening 7-3 win at #6 Alabama. Stopping there for a moment (since that is ultimately where the win streak stopped), how were you feeling during those 30 minutes between game one and game two in Tuscaloosa (after a Friday rainout caused a Saturday twin bill)?

Switzy - I was flying home during that Alabama double-header, which meant I had limited ability to follow the action live. However, I was with access when the Tigers finished off a fairly decisive first-game victory. At that time, I was ecstatic. Winning a road game against a very good team in conference is always great; winning the opening game of the series put me in the frame of mind that a series win might be in the cards. I had gone into the Alabama series knowing that a single win would be a perfectly fine result, but expectations have a way of shifting pretty quickly for me. It seemed as though Paige Lowary was starting to find a groove and the hitting was still on track.

Of course, we know what happened next. A 9-1 run rule loss in the second half of the double-header. Then, in the rubber match on Monday night an error led to 3 Alabama runs in the first and pretty much every problem possible led to another TWELVE in the 2nd, en route to a 16-2 clobbering. A couple of games that were the stuff of nightmares. A certain RMN contributor cracking wise about it all on Twitter in order to ease his pain. I believe I even speculated that the Tigers might even fall out of the rankings (forgetting that Monday's game wouldn't be included in them, and also overreacting a great deal).

But I think it is fair to have questioned the ceiling of this team in the aftermath of those two losses. When the Tigers lost their opportunity for a mid-week palate cleanser, Tennessee loomed as the next opponent. What was on your mind as the Tigers entered this past weekend?

The Beef - I really was still OK after the debacle that was the final two games in Tuscaloosa.  I certainly agreed with the statement Coach E made at some point in the past few weeks that IF we could figure out the pitching, we probably had a WCWS-caliber team on our hands.  Obviously, the injuries and subsequent physical/psychological downturns of Lowary and Finucane were prominent in my mind, but I just did not think I had enough data to go on.  When looking at the schedule, the Tigers really only had one truly bad loss (which was to Stanford in one of the early tourneys).  Yes, losing to Oregon in the manner they did was bad.  Losing to Michigan and Alabama the way they did was bad.  Losing at Ole Miss is certainly not a great loss, but I don’t think it will prove to be that bad of a loss either.  Yes, I would have preferred the likely pallet-cleaners that SLU could have been, but I was still OK without it…..

….and then we played Game 1 at home against Tenn and were down 5-0 after the first few innings. Paige was pretty miserable and Baumgartner wasn’t much better, though it was nice to see Tori provide a clean inning. And while Crane’s HR on Saturday was exciting in terms of staking us to an early lead, Paige did not have it (again) and all of a sudden it was 4-1 Tenn and Coach E went back to Tori. And while the control was still a little iffy (3 BB’s), she had Tenn swinging and missing quite a bit (1 H, 7 K’s over 3.2 scoreless innings) and I started to feel a little better. Then the Tigers scratched their way back to take the lead and I felt even better. Personally, I thought Coach E’s hook on Tori in the 6th was pretty quick, but for Baumgartner to come in and be clean for the final two innings on her way to the win was encouraging. Lowary giving up two early runs on Sunday was less than ideal, but her response of only one additional run over the next five was nice to see, followed up by another clean outing for Tori on our way to a 7-3 win and series win over #16 Tennessee.

So here we are at #14 in the country (#9 in the RPI, an important number for Super Regional hosting potential) 5-4 in the SEC and 26-7 overall. As we get into the toughest part of our SEC schedule in the coming weeks (#11/#17 UGA, #15/#16 Kentucky and #10/#13 aTm), do we have ANY idea how the pitching staff may work for these big series and they will stack up against the Bulldogs this coming weekend?

Switzy - I don't think we do. We know a few things, but probably not enough to make any real guesses. For instance, we know that Paige Lowary is still considered the ace of this staff (evidenced by her recent SEC Pitcher of the Week aware and her getting the starts in all three games against Tennessee. We know - via Coach E - that Tori Finucane has been dealing with arm issues all season which is at least partially responsible for her lack of innings. We also know that her game 2 performance against Tennessee was one heck of a flashback to her excellent freshman campaign. And finally, we know that Danielle Baumgartner has struggled a lot against conference opponents. Which makes Paige and Tori's collective return to health/form all the more important for the Tigers.

I suspect we will see more of the same for now. Paige will start game 1. If she gets all the way through, it'll be Baumgartner/Finucane in game 2, then back to Paige for game 3. But if Lowary struggles again, Coach E will find whoever he can to eat up the innings and try again the next game. Ultimately, I have to think he's mostly playing things as they come - both in terms of results and ability to throw. Mizzou (and their fans) will just have to hope that this is the point in the season when things start to look up for the staff. If memory serves, it was roughly this time last year that Lowary began rounding into form and Tori Finucane finally emerged healthy (for a while). A similar run could put the Tigers in a very favorable position come tourney time.

Funny how pitching dominates the conversation even though Mizzou is playing one of (if not the) best offense in its history. Before we dive into what to expect from Georgia, what has happened over the last couple weeks to keep you excited about this teams potential, Beef?

The Beef - While it was certainly inevitable the offense would start to come down from the ridiculous pace it was on to start the season, it really hasn’t come down as much as I thought it might.  We still have a team averaging more than six earned runs per game with a team slash-line of .343/.429/.544.  You’ve got three people (Fagan, Rathburn and Crane) with 10 HR’s each for the power, three people (Gadbois (33), Fagan (20) and Nash (15) with double-figure stolen bases for the speed and three people (Fagan (.463), Gadbois (.433) and Nash (.420) with averages over .400.  What’s that?  Sami Fagan was on all three lists?  Yeah…that is an amazing season the senior is finishing her Mizzou career with.  In fact, Gadbois is on there twice, and Crane is at .389 and with 8 steals herself.  This group of seniors is going out in style and doing a nice job to care for the loss of power from Amanda Sanchez (.365, but with only 3 HR’s) and the loss of power and average from Mack (.250/1 HR).  The K’s are starting to catch up the BB’s for the team (127 BB’s to 118 K’s), but that is to be expected when most of the rest of the games this season will come against top-flight/SEC opponents.

Speaking of SEC opponents, let’s turn our focus to UGA.  The Bulldogs are currently 31-7/5-4 in the SEC and have offense to burn.  They run-ruled their first TEN opponents this season, though their OOC schedule was not terribly tough at all, leading to a RPI (17) which is below their ranking (11).  They’ve got an OOC win against #22 Minnesota (6-5), #32 Fullerton (7-6) and #52 Northwestern (5-4…though NW is 11-20 on the season).  In conference, they’ve dropped two of three against #21 South Carolina in Columbia, but then swept #13 aTm at home before dropping two of three against #14 LSU.

Back to their offense, they have a team slash-line of .370/.456/.550.  The HR power is not off the charts (34), but they hit a lot of doubles (61 to Mizzou’s 40) to raise that slugging.  They’ve got four everyday players at or above .400, led by sisters Cortni and Sydni Emanuel.  Cortni leads Sydni .480 to .474 and in steals (23-24 to 11-13), but these two are classic table-setters.  That leads Tina Iosefa, who is hitting .388 with a team-high 12 HR’s, 51 RBI’s and a slugging of .847 and who has also earned 32 walks.   Maeve McGuire is another name to be on the lookout for, as she is hitting .400 with 11 doubles and 6 HR’s. This team loves contacts, as they don’t walk a ton (140 in 38 games) and strikeout at nearly the same rate (147).

So UGA appears to have plenty of offense, how does the defense and pitching look?  Can they be outscored or will our pitching need to keep their runs to a minimum for us to have a shot?

Switzy - Looks like Missouri will need to bring their A-game. Georgia features two primary pitchers and a very good third option for filler/relief. The two starters are senior Chelsea Wilkinson and sophomore Brittany Gray. In addition to experience, Wilkinson brings the better numbers of the two. She carries a 2.02 ERA, .191 BAA, over a strikeout per inning (128 in 114.1) and only 19 walks and 8 HBP on the season. She does give up long balls at times - 10 so far this season - but she's a rock-solid veteran who Mizzou will likely see twice. Gray compares favorably, but is much less daunting. She sports a 2.49 ERA and .246 BAA while roughly equaling Wilkinson's K-rate (103 in 78.2 innings). She gives up a few more free passes, though, with 29 (along with 4 HBP).

In relief, Mizzou may freshman Kylie Bass, who has 12 non-starting appearances (and 5 starts) and has a ridiculous 0.99 ERA. However, only 3.1 of her 42 innings have come in conference play. Behind Georgia's staff is a defense that is good but not great. Two freshman infielders lead the team in errors, which may give Missouri's speed game a chance to shine. As a team, however, the Bulldogs have a .966 fielding percentage (somewhere around 50th in the nation) and have given up 19 unearned runs on the year. Coincidentally, 11 of those have come during Brittany Gray's time in the circle.

So it seems like a tough job, but if any offense is up to the task, it should be this one. But they will need to be ready and come with the good stuff. Some quality pitching would go a long way for the Tigers this weekend.

So it's prediction time. I know how you like me to start off, so I'll jump in right away and say that I think Mizzou will come away with 1 win this weekend. I'm very close to saying 2 wins, but I'm going to need to see a little more pitching for a little longer timeframe before getting that level of confidence back. Georgia is definitely a step above Tennessee, and I think their offense will be even more of a threat. Care to wager otherwise?

The Beef - I really can’t argue with your stance on the single win.  If we get the Paige Lowary of Sunday after the first inning and the Tori Finucane of all of last weekend, I could certainly be convinced to amend my prediction.  But every time we think the pitching may have turned a corner, we see another stretch of bumpy road.  I agree our offense is more than up to the task of putting some runs on the board throughout the course of the weekend.  Obviously, I’d still love the power game to be further bolstered by Sanchez and Mack (and Pierce to some extent, who has not HR’ed much since the start of the year), as we know those ladies have the ability to hit double-digit HRs.   Getting one more from that group going would make this lineup all the more formidable, especially as Coach E still tries to figure out what to do at second base.  But the rest of the lineup and especially the wrap-around from the bottom of Nash, Crane, Gadbois and Fagan is really unlike anything I’ve seen from Mizzou in a long time, if ever in terms of power, average and speed.

Anyway, maybe the week of no travel and remaining at home will help rest the team up a bit and have them ready to jump out on UGA from the start on Friday, which was lacking against Tenn last weekend. This is an important stretch for the Tigers here and the team rounding a bit more into shape (especially in the circle) would be a big step forward.