Enough words have been spilled over the 2016 investigation into Mizzou softball. If you’ve kept up with the reporting of Blake Toppmeyer or Dave Matter (or others), you’ve seen the 2017 season cast entirely in the shadow of the protest, the Mack Rhoades administration’s response, the subsequent retaining of head coach Ehren Earleywine, and the loss of a handful of transfers, including Paige Lowary and Tori Finucane.
But with time, that off-the-field maneuvering will not matter to the average fan. The record books will show only how the 2017 Missouri Tiger softball team fared against another very difficult schedule in what is probably the strongest conference in the sport.
SEC Conference Recap
At our mid-season check-in, Mizzou was sitting at 17-11, staring into the headlights of the bulk of their SEC schedule. Here’s a quick recap of how the Tigers have fared since then:
- @Texas A&M: 1-2
- vs. Alabama: 2-1
- vs. Arkansas: 1-2
- @Auburn: 1-2
- vs. Kentucky: 0-3
- @LSU: 1-2
- vs. Ole Miss: 1-2
- all combined non-con games: 5-0
Final regular season record: 29-25, easily the worst record of the Ehren Earleywine era. Final RPI rank: 32nd (and yet, last in the SEC).
If I had more foresight, I’d have written something during the middle game of the Auburn series. Having surprised the other Tigers in the first game of the series, Mizzou had a 3-0 lead heading into the bottom of the fourth inning. Mizzou’s pitching came undone, allowing four runs, relinquishing the lead and ultimately losing 5-4 when Regan Nash was trapped between third and home trying to get the tying run across.
That loss started a run of seven consecutive in SEC play, a streak in which the Tigers managed only 18 runs (eight of which were in a single 10-8 loss to Kentucky). Rather than finishing middle of the pack in the SEC, Mizzou dropped to 11th and will face LSU in the opening round of the tournament on Wednesday evening.
Diving into the results themselves, we can see a few trends that hindered Mizzou during this season:
- Blown leads: On six different occasions this year, Mizzou held sizable and/or late leads that were lost. Against UCSB they gave up four in the seventh to lose 6-5; against Maryland they were up 7-1 going into the seventh and lost in extras; against Ohio State they were up 4-3 entering the seventh and lost in extras; against Arkansas they allowed three in the seventh to lose 6-5; against Kentucky they led 8-3 through five and lost 10-8. And then there was the Auburn game mentioned earlier. Mizzou only managed three comeback victories of a similar makeup.
- Pitching: Without question, Cheyenne Baxter acquitted herself very well as the staff’s top pitcher for the majority of the season. But after a very strong start, Madi Norman struggled mightily in SEC play, going 0-5 with a 7.21 ERA in 6 starts and 6 relief appearances. Danielle Baumgartner was not much better, going 0-1 with a 5.76 ERA working exclusively in relief.
- The SEC slide: Bats always go colder during conference season. That’s just a matter of competition level. But it really hurt that some of Mizzou’s best hitters were affected most. Regan Nash actually fared very close to her overall numbers, hitting .333 in conference. But Kirsten Mack dipped from .342 overall to .258 in SEC play, while Braxton Burnside and Riley Pierce hit below the Mendoza line in conference. As a team, Mizzou hit only .220 during SEC season, and suffered from the league’s third-worst ERA: a poor combination.
- Defense: Mizzou committed 29 errors in conference play, with a .956 fielding percentage. That led to 20 unearned runs which was second-worst in the league. Overall, the Tigers allowed 57 unearned runs — or 26% of the total runs they allowed all season. Youth and inexperience at SS, third (after Amanda Sanchez’s season ending injury), and around the outfield were the biggest issues.
With an RPI rank of 32, Mizzou has likely already secured a spot in the NCAA field. However, any wins in the SEC tournament would have a positive effect on team morale and possibly on seeding/location. Mizzou will definitely not be hosting a regional, but placement will be very interesting as the committee always avoids putting conference mates in the same regional.
There is a lot about Mizzou Softball’s future to be hopeful about, but we’ll get to all that once this season has officially come to an end. For the present, Mizzou faces a familiar foe in LSU on Wednesday evening in the opening round of the SEC tournament. Against LSU just a few weeks ago, Mizzou played in three low-scoring affairs, dropping 3-2 and 3-1 decisions before winning the final game 3-1.
The tale of the tape is simple: Mizzou and LSU were two of the league’s worst hitting teams in SEC play. Mizzou eked out a slightly higher average — and managed twice the HR power of LSU — but the Bayou Bengals exhibited better plate discipline and had the slightest edge in the speed game. But in the circle, LSU held opponents in check with a 1.70 ERA, good for second in the league.
We can safely assume that Cheyenne Baxter will take the circle for this one. If she pitches near the top of her game from this year, Mizzou can definitely win this one and move on to face Tennessee. However, if she gets roughed up, it’s going to be very difficult for the Mizzou offense to break out against LSU’s talented staff.
Prediction: Mizzou drops another close one to LSU and is sent out west to a difficult Pac-12 regional.