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Mizzou Softball: Taking Two of Three on the Road

The Tigers opened SEC play with three games on the road, and Switzy and I discuss the merit of winning two of them and the fashion in which it was done. Mizzou's home opener begins at 4pm CT today.

Still lots of hits, but just not the homeruns from earlier in the season for the Tigers
Still lots of hits, but just not the homeruns from earlier in the season for the Tigers
The Beef

The Beef - So Switzy..how are you looking at the weekend? 2-1 series win on the road in the SEC or a pitching implosion and an offense which was pretty stagnant at times?

Switzy - The offense was certainly stagnant at times, but as we documented in our preview of the series, Ole Miss had some arms. I think the Rebs showed that their early season success was not entirely a function of their schedule. Ultimately, though (and as I tweeted after the conclusion of the final game) this is about pitching. It's kind of unfortunate, considering the TIger staff threw 21 innings and only gave up runs in 2 of those innings. But one was a 3-run first that was aided by 3 walks and 2 WP by Paige Lowary, and the other was a disastrous 9-run third that included miscues by pretty much everyone: Paige gave up three singles and was subsequently pulled (possibly too soon?); Tori Finucane came in, fresh off a nice 2.2 innings of shutout ball in the previous game, and issued a walk, threw a WP, and then hit a batter; finally, Danielle Baumgartner gave up 5 more singles and threw a wild pitch. The overall line for the inning isn't quite so tainted with free baserunners as we've seen recently, but it nevertheless was effectively a game-ending sequence.

I think there is merit to looking at the offense's failure to bring home runners, though, as well. This weekend, a few key bats went quiet (Amanda Sanchez was 3-10 with no extra base hits and only 1 RBI, Rylee Pierce was 2-10, Kirsten Mack was 2-10) and Paige Bange, chosen to occupy 2nd base, had no hits and 3 strikeouts on the weekend. There are still hitters working at a high level, but without the consistency up and down the lineup it will be harder and harder to keep SEC pitching staffs concerned.

There is merit, too, in accepting a 2-1 road split in conference and moving on. Considering that the problems for this Tiger team have pretty well solidified in our minds, what is there to look positively at from this weekend's action?

The Beef - The speed and the team’s ability to grind out a run or two when they really need it certainly was on full display in the first two games of the weekend. Now up to 63 stolen bases in 65 attempts, the Tigers were all over the basepaths when they had the chance against Ole Miss. Congrats to Taylor Gadbois for moving into #2 all time for the Tigers as well, as she used a solid hitting weekend to now have 19 SB’s in 20 attempts (while Fagan and Nash are a combined 25-25). Speaking of Nash, what a great start to her frosh campaign. Nice to see the Tigers should not need to worry about the replacement of Gadbois after this season.

Beyond the speed, the batting average is still a lovely .359 for the team and the team still has more walks than K’s. You’ve got five regulars above .400 and two more above .365. With the speed they have, those averages should obviously help the Tigers score runs. However, the slugging is really starting to come down from what obviously was a pretty unsustainable amount from a few weeks ago. With that drop, those big innings are now becoming single run innings which are either not fully putting opponents away, or in Sunday’s case, not quite closing a large gap quickly enough.

Strange week ahead for the Tigers as they step back out of conference play for games against Western Illinois, New Mexico State and UTEP. Right now, three double-headers dot the schedule between Wednesday and Monday (of seven total games), so pitching is going to be important. More about that in a minute, but here are my quick takes on the three Tiger opponents coming up

  • Western Illinois is 6-16 on the season with a single HR on offense and a team ERA over 5 in the circle
  • New Mexico State is 20-10 and certainly presents more potential threat than WIU. A team batting average of .369 with Kelsey Horton doing a lot of everything (.440 with 10 HR’s). 33 errors hurt and a team ERA just over 3.50 means there is some room to score on them
  • UTEP is 9-16 with a team batting average just south of .300, some power pretty evenly distributed throughout the lineup (23 total, but five people have hit either three or four on the season), no speed at all (four in seven attempts), plenty of errors (though not as many as NMSU) and a team ERA just south of 6

I say you skip right on past the Leathernecks and tell me if anything concerns you more than the 5 games in three days with our current pitching.

Switzy - The only concern I have that's even in the ballpark of the pitching is the 2nd base position. As mentioned earlier, Paige Bange was given the shot last weekend and performed admirably on defense. But with no offense, one wonders if Coach E will be inclined to go back to Natalie Fleming or Chase Nelson - or even (speculation alert!) move Emily Crane back to 2nd to open up an outfield spot for Morgan Walters or Kolby Romaine. Or any of the (by my count) 4 players on the rosters who are as of now still eligible to redshirt due to receiving no playing time. It's going to be difficult to balance defense and offense if, as was the case against Ole Miss, Mizzou really needs to get something at he plate from the 2nd baseman.

Fortunately, I think the series of arms the Tigers are likely to face against WIU, NMSU, and UTEP are very likely to rejuvenate the bats that have been challenged a lot in the last 10 games (3 conference games, 4 games against ranked opponents). That will once again leave us wondering just how the pitching rotation - and relief schedule - will work out. I expect to see Cheyenne Baxter get some innings this weekend, and I'm considering it fairly likely that Tori Finucane will get at least a start. Additionally, I think these will be games that allow Coach to remain a bit more patient with his starters and give them an opportunity to work through trouble. Even against weaker competition, that's a skill worth working on. As for the exact rotation...I think that's anybody's guess. That's a lot of games in a pretty short stretch. Mostly I just want more performances like the beauty that Baumgartner and Finucane teamed up for in the opener of Sunday's doubleheader.

In the batting order, we saw more shuffling of the lineup this weekend, although it was the same players game to game. Given what happened, do you see any big changes? And what's your take on this 2nd base issue?

The Beef - I think your point about perhaps bringing Crane back into the infield and giving someone else a chance as a bat in the outfield makes the most sense to me. Giving Bange the shot was fine, but at this point, Fleming is offering the same offense (though we know she CAN hit) and a better glove, so I could see that with some merit as well.   If you go with the new outfielder idea, I would have to assume it Is Morgan Walters who gets first crack, as she is hitting .273 with 1 HR in her limited at bats (as compared to Romaine’s 1-10 thus far). And as for the redshirting folks, I think I just would prefer to keep them as such a this point, which means I also don’t believe we are likely to see any other big changes. You’ve got seven people who have started all 19 games so far, with Rathburn starting 16 as the eighth constant. Just have to settle out second base.

I also wanted to mention the pitching effort from Baumgartner and Finucane on Sunday in the first game and how excited I was to see Tori come in and fill that role the way she did. Of course, my excitement only lasted about an hour or so until the wheels fell off in the second game of the twin-bill, but have Tori play the role of change of pace (faster) to Danielle’s arm is certainly an interesting thought.

As for the week and weekend, I agree that Baxter is likely due some time. In a perfect world, you don’t pitch Lowary at all on Wednesday, leaving those innings to get split between the other three. Most preferably, I’d love to see a Baxter and Finucane start, allowing you to start Lowary and Baumgartner in the second double-header of the week, then going with perhaps Tori again for the middle game before returning to Lowary and Baumgartner on the Monday double header. Will it work out that way? Lord knows it won’t.

Any final predictions before we close it up? Admittedly, I’ll likely be disappointed with a loss at any point during the week, though I think New Mexico State could provide the Tigers some trouble (as well as long travel). What say you? Calling for the Tigers to get healthy and sweep the week?

Switzy - Mizzou should sweep. These are the types of teams they should beat. And after all the travel already under their belts, I don't think the trip to New Mexico State will phase the TIgers. I am indeed going to predict the sweep, and an enjoyable time for us looking at the Tigers next week as they begin the heart of their SEC season.