clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Mizzou Softball still has quite a bit of work to do to keep its postseason hopes alive

New, 14 comments
Softball-stock

With the conclusion of this past weekend's final non-conference tournament of the season for the Missouri Tigers, they have reached the approximate midpoint of their season, marked in part by the first RPI rankings of the season – which is the ranking that I will use throughout this article.

It's been a difficult ride so far for the Tigers, but they remain capable of coming out and beating almost anyone in the country on any given night. Let's look at what the Tigers have done so far, then at what they will need to do in the second half to consider this season a success.

What Has Been

The Tigers currently stand at 17-11 after finishing 4-1 at the USF tournament over the weekend, and are ranked #44 in the initial RPI. They have managed resume-building wins against Washington (#1), James Madison (#12), Illinois (#22), and Notre Dame (#39) along with a handful of dominant victories over lesser squads.

While Mizzou has impressively avoided being run ruled so far this season, they have suffered some uncharacteristically poor losses, especially to UCSB (#129) and Maryland (#176). These are normally the types of games that boost Missouri's win totals and even just two games could be vital at the end of the season.

That said, seven of their eleven losses have come to top 21 teams in the country (2 each to Florida and Georgia, one each to James Madison, Ohio St., and Texas). And with a loaded SEC slate ahead, the Tigers will have ample opportunities to push the memory of their worse game out of mind.

So what lies behind the uncharacteristic struggles for Mizzou thus far? Rather than highlight any one area of concern, it is worth looking at the whole. The biggest problem for the Tigers has been the seeming inability to put together their complete game. All three elements of the team have been good at times, and poor at times:

  • Pitching: The team sports a reasonable ERA of 2.85 though 28 games, but has been victimized by poor innings and outings, particularly in the early part of the season. They have also given their opponents more than 3 free baserunners per game between walks and HBP.
  • Fielding: 27 errors and a poor .967 fielding percentage have contributed to Mizzou giving away 35 unearned runs – or 1.25 per game. In fact, unearned runs account for nearly 1/3 of all runs the team has given up, and some of these unearned runs have directly decided games.
  • Hitting: The USF tournament was big for the Tiger bats, as they added over 20 points to the team average while putting up double-figures in four consecutive games. Yet, their collection .293 average remains a full 34 points lower than the full season average for the 2016 team. With a large drop in stolen bases, a small drop in HR rate, and a decline in walks, the Tigers have some work to do to make up ground.

Looking at the individuals on the team, the leaders stand out clearly.

In the circle, Louisville transfer Madi Norman has come to Columbia to ball, pitching a team high in innings yet maintaining an ERA of 2.94 with a record of 7-5 while facing most of the top opponents Mizzou has played.

Senior Cheyenne Baxter has also been impressive this season, sporting a team best ERA (2.49) and strikeout total (56) that includes a brilliant performance against Florida in which she gave up only a single run — yet suffered a loss.

On offense, the Tigers have been led by the duo of Braxton Burnside and Kirsten Mack. Burnside, the highly-touted freshman shortstop, has exceeded all expectations, batting a team-best .375 with 9 HR and 37 RBI, including her team-record 10 in a single game over the weekend.

Mack, meanwhile, has displayed veteran leadership from the catcher position in her senior season, hitting .372 with 4 HR and a career best 5 SB, along with a spectacular 16 walks to only 6 strikeouts.

What is Coming

Though the Tigers opened SEC conference play over a week ago, the conference season now begins in earnest as the Tigers travel to College Station for the annual Ehren Earleywine/Jo Evans shade-throwing contest.

After a midweek twinbill against Gregg Marshall's Wichita State, the Tigers get back-to-back SEC home weekends against Alabama and Arkansas (with an intervening home SEMO doubleheader). Mizzou then hosts Western Illinois midweek to complete their homestand before heading to Auburn, then closing out their season at home against Kentucky, at LSU, and finally home against Ole Miss.

There's really just one thing the casual fan needs to know about that conference schedule: Every SEC team on the above list except Ole Miss is currently in the top 25 and Alabama, Texas A&M, and Auburn are all in the top seven.

That means there will be no gimmes for the Tigers (unlike, for example, 2016's version of the Razorbacks, who won exactly one conference game). But it also means opportunity, as every win is going to be a big boost to RPI, which is certainly a factor in determining post-season placement (as well as being the best gauge for us to predict Mizzou's chances.

Mizzou's number one priority has to be winning all of its remaining non-conference games. That would put the Tigers at 23 wins and leave them with 21 conference games in order for the Tigers to make their case for a postseason berth.

Based on the three SEC teams that made the tournament last year without earning a national seed, I would predict that they will need to win around half of their remaining conference games in order to make the tournament.

Of course, a lot would depend on which games specifically they were to win. For those looking for a shortcut toward predicting the post-season, look for Mizzou to stay in the top 40 of RPI; that would give the Tigers a very good shot at making the tournament.

What to Watch For

Here are switzy's top 10 things to look for over the second half of the season from Missouri Tiger softball. These are things I think will be very telling as to how Mizzou is faring:

  1. Most important series: vs. Alabama (March 31-April 2). This is Mizzou's first home SEC series of the season and in their new stadium. If they are going to make noise against one of the best teams in the SEC, this would be a great opportunity to do it.
  2. Danielle Baumgartner: Norman and Baxter are doing well, but without a true ace, Mizzou really needs a third solid option in the circle. If Baumgartner can continue her recent form, perhaps that can steal a couple wins down the stretch. However, if she reverts to early season form, the staff is going to struggle.
  3. Chloe Rathburn: In 2016, Rathburn hit .330 with 15 HR. So far in 2017, she is hitting only .286 and has yet to clear the fences. Finding offense against SEC staffs is going to require more hitters to step up, and Rathburn is a prime candidate.
  4. Most important freshman (non-Braxton Burnside edition): Gabby Garrison was given a decent amount of play early, but failed to convert her opportunities at the plate and is hitting just above the Mendoza line. However, she is second on the team in steals and can play in the OF where Mizzou has struggled to find consistency. If she can find her stroke, she could be a big player for the Tigers.
  5. Top of the lineup: Coach E has used a variety of approaches to his lineup this season, and has been forced for long stretches to put Pierce at the top of the lineup rather than going with a speed option. If he can find anyone to set up Pierce/Mack/Sanchez, instead of them having to be the set up, that will be a good sign for Mizzou.
  6. Most important road games: @Auburn (April 14-16). Mizzou's postseason fate is unlikely to be finalized before this series, due to the quality in SEC play. Regardless of how the next couple of weeks play out, this series will give Mizzou the best chance to catapult their fortunes into the home stretch.
  7. The outfield. 6 different players have started in the outfield for Mizzou this season, and only lately has there seemed to be a sense of permanence with the trio of Natalie Fleming, Cayla Kessinger, and Anna Reed. If players are playing every day, they are probably playing well. More of that would be good.
  8. Regan Nash. the presumed heir-apparent to Taylor Gadbois, Nash was struggling severely until the USF tournament this past weekend. If she can rediscover the form that made her a .336 hitter in 2016, it would be a huge boost for Mizzou.
  9. The long ball. Missouri's pitching staff has limited opponent damage in part by limiting them to only 13 HR in 28 games. Continuing to prevent the long ball should help keep Mizzou in games all year long.
  10. Third base. With Amanda Sanchez getting injured against Ohio St. over the weekend, it will be importantt to fill that role with a contributor. Natalie Fleming and Jolie Duffner each played twice there after Sanchez's injury. Both are struggling with average although Fleming at least has 5 HR on the season. Whether she takes the role, Sanchez emerges healthy sooner than expected, or Paige Bange steps in and does well, Mizzou cannot afford to falter much either offensively or defensively at the position.

For those wanting more information on Tiger softball's schedule, including links to live stats, information on TV/radio broadcasts, and weekly game notes, be sure to check the softball page at mutigers.com.