In a four-team regional feeding into a super regional, the name of the game on Day One, especially for the top seed, is to: survive the early game post-season jitters; keep the underdog no. 4 seed off the basepaths as much as possible; quickly snuff out any momentum before they and their fans get whipped into a frenzy; and put continuous pressure on the underdog's pitching and defense. With the exception of a rocky start, Stanford accomplished each of these goals.
The start was rocky indeed. Before the 448 in attendance got back into their seats after the national anthem, Robert Morris leadoff hitter Jill Spargo found herself at first after a solid single to right, then at second when Crystal Herman's bunt stopped dead in a perfect spot between home plate and the pitcher's mound, turning the sacrifice attempt into an infield hit. After Keri Meyer flied out to Stanford left fielder Jackie Rinehart, Stanford starting pitcher Becky McCullough hit Kali Beyers with a 2-2 pitch in the dirt.
One out into the first inning, the game was certainly not following the script desired by a no. 1 seed. Although Robert Morris was not exactly hitting the cover off the ball, that is not a requirement in softball, as opposed to baseball. The Morris hitters were moving around the bases. As a result, the sacks were full of Colonials. RMU was a single away from turning a good start into an underdog's best friend—an early lead.
13 batters later, the Colonials notched their next hit.
In the first, McCullough struck out first baseman Brandi Doerschner, and Lauren Lappin gloved a sharply hit ground ball that might have gotten by many middle infielders and given the Colonials that early lead, then threw out catcher Jill Dorsch. From the second through the fifth, McCullough, who threw a total of four innings, and Stanford reliever Laura Severson, worked four straight one-two-three innings. By the time Meyer boosted the Colonial hit total from two (accomplished in the first inning) to three (in the sixth), most of Stanford's damage had been done.
That damage came in the form of eleven hits, six walks, two wild pitches, and nine runs. The Stanford offense was scattered almost throughout the line up and certainly throughout the scoreboard, as Stanford put up one or two runs in all six innings. When pinch hitter Elizabeth Bending blasted a two-run homer over the left-field wall in the sixth, she pushed the score to 9-0 and ended the game under the mercy rule. [Softball has walk off homers even in blowouts!]
Several Stanford hitters had successful evenings. Special mention here goes to the starters at the bottom and the top of the lineup. At the bottom, Missourian Katherine Hoffman, the designated hitter, had two hits, two runs, and an RBI in three trips to the dish in her return to the Show Me State. At the top of the lineup, center fielder Catalina Morris had three hits in four plate appearances. Shortstop Lauren Lappin had two hits, as well as one amazing defensive play where she grabbed a ball that bounced off third baseman Michelle Smith and gunned out the hitter.
Given that Stanford largely followed the script for a no. 1 seed, this was undeniably a successful day, though it tells us little about how the remainder of the regional will play itself out. When the no. 4 seed knocks off the top dog (and yes it does happen—ask the NCAA's most favored team this year, the Florida Gators), it turns a four-team regional upside down and has tremendous influence on the next two days. When the no. 1 seed, as expected, beats the no. 4 seed, it does little to predict what will happen the next two days.
In any four-team regional, step one is surviving the first game. The big game is the winner's bracket game between the two first round winners. Win that one, and you take the rest of Saturday off and come back on Sunday needing to win only one of the two games that day. Lose it and you force yourself to win three straight games to survive the regional.
The winner's bracket game will pit no. 22 Southern Illinois against no. 4 (but seeded no. 6) Stanford. Given the presence of no. 16 Mizzou, which pulled off an even tougher four straight comeback a week ago at the Big 12 tournament, danger still lurks for the winner of the Southern Illinois-Stanford tilt. The fact remains, though, that the team that wins will be in a strong position relative to both the loser of the game and today's losers, Mizzou and Robert Morris.
- Southern Illinois 3, Mizzou 0
In the opening game, Mizzou's Erin Kalka threw three perfect innings, then gave up a two out RBI single to SIU center fielder Maria Damico in the fourth. Damico added a two-run shot over the center field fence in the sixth, thereby grabbing RBIs on all of the game's three runs.
- Saluki "Home Field" Advantage
Southern Illinois, the next closest school to Mizzou in the regional, brought a large crowd. In the bowl game parlance, they "travel well." The crowd is also quite boisterous, complaining about pretty much every borderline ball-and-strike call that goes against the Strange But Sort of Cool Looking Egyptian Hunting Dogs, and even some that were not really borderline. At University Field, the raised seating creates a funnel that intensifies crowd noise.
Southern Illinois will also presumably be the home team in tomorrow's game, because it was the visitor today while Stanford was the home team. It is also in its own time zone. Thus, Southern Illinois should be considered as close to a home team as any team in a neutral site.
- Saluki Pitching
More significant, of course, is the Saluki pitching. It is as impressive in person as it appears in the stats sheet. Against Mizzou, Saluki pitcher Amy Harre managed to reduce her pre game ERA of 1.17. She seems to be one of those pitchers who gets much better with runners on base.
Remember, too, that Cassidy Scoggins, who did not pitch for SIU today, stands at the ready with her "wow!" ERA of .52, fourth best in the country. This team clearly knows how to get opposing hitters out.
- Patience at the Plate
In the RMU/Stanford game, home plate umpire Christie Cornwell had a tiny strike zone, for both teams. However, Stanford hitters did a much better job of recognizing this than their opponents. RMU pitchers Danielle Cohen and Erica Riggle yielded three walks each, for an average of one per inning. Also, many of Stanford's hits came when the RMU pitchers were facing two- or three-ball counts.
Remarkably, even with a very tight strike zone, RMU's hitters did not work a single walk out of McCullough and Severson. The Colonial hitters often swung at the first offering from the Stanford pitchers. They simply did not give the umpire the chance to put Stanford's pitchers behind the eight ball. Of course, a bit of anxious enthusiasm is to be expected from a team making its first NCAA tournament appearance.
The umpires rotate each game, so Cornwell will presumably not be wearing a mask to the SIU/Stanford tilt. However, she is far from the only softball umpire who hesitates to call strikes. Stanford hitters should remain patient at the plate until that patience starts to work against them.
- Keys to Beating Southern Illinois
Southern Illinois scored in two of the three innings in which it had baserunners. Mizzou, on the other hand, failed to push across a run in any inning, including the first three, in which it had base runners in scoring position (and, for that matter, the last, when it had the bases loaded when a strike out ended the game). Thus, the clear key for beating SIU is to bunch hits, so that base runners have the chance to score.
Of course, "score at every opportunity, because there are not many" is not a very original strategy. If it were that easy, Mizzou would have done it against Harre. But Stanford should realize that every scoring chance is precious.
At the same time, of course, it is important for Stanford to thwart every possible Saluki rally. As in the past, they scored a large percentage of their runs (here, two-thirds) by going yard.
Thus, the way to beat SIU is: (a) hit with runners on base; (b) keep the ball in the ball park; and (c) take some pitches, at least until the home plate umpire establishes a bigger strike zone. Simple, huh?
- KZSU 2 Broadcast
We seem to have had some technical difficulties with the KZSU2 broadcast from yours truly and my trusty sidekick. Apparently the play-by-play mixed with some classical or jazz music.
Our friends at KZSU are hoping to correct these problems before tomorrow's game. Join us at KZSU2 at 10:00 a.m. Pacific for the key game in the regional.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Robert Morris 0 0 0 0 0 0 X 0 3 2
Stanford 2 1 1 1 2 2 X 9 11 0
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