Softball Soars Into Sunday

You cannot ask for much more from #4 ranked and #6 seeded Stanford Softball, who has cruised through its first two games of the NCAA Regional in Columbia (Mo.), including a 9-1 Saluki smackdown against Southern Illinois today. That sends the Cardinal straight to Sunday with a 2-0 record, where they will face host Missouri (2-1).

Elizabeth Bendig ended Stanford's Friday night game with a two-run homer. Happily "long ball fever" was a disease that spread quickly among Bendig's teammates. By the noon (central) start of today's critical winner's bracket game against Southern Illinois, several Stanford players were fully infected.

Catcher Leah Nelson led the way. After a strange first inning at bat that found her at one point standing on first after being hit by a pitch, then seeing that call nullified and striking out, she lit up the scoreboard. She broke up a 1-1 tie in the top of the third with a double that plated third baseman Michelle Smith in the middle of a four-hit rally that netted three runs. All of the third inning action came after Saluki starter Amy Harre secured two ground ball outs.

As it turned out, Smith's run was the only one Stanford needed. Perhaps due to the serious case of long ball fever, though, the Cardinal was not satisfied.

Nelson's next big hit was a long opposite field fly to the fence in the fifth. For a moment, it looked like Saluki right fielder Tiffanie Dismore hauled in the fly for the inning's first out. Instead, the ball snuck over the fence (with or without an assist from Dismore—my old eyes are not that good, and even MiniMizzouCard's 11-year-old eyes were not adequate for a definitive ruling) for a two-run dinger.

In the seventh, Leah Nelson continued her "every at bat is going to be better than the last" trend with another opposite field shot. This one needed no help as it cleared the fence on the way toward the practice area on the University of Missouri's A.L. Gustin golf course. [By the way, that practice hole is clearly marked "For University of Missouri golf team only." Nelson showed a disturbing lack of respect for that directive!]

Nelson may have had the worst case of long ball fever, but she did not have the only case. Her seventh inning shot was actually the finishing touch on back-to-back home runs. Smith provided the opening salvo as she continued her propensity to hit balls into or over scoreboards with a two-run blast into the left field Stanford tally board. [Is her family in the scoreboard repair business? She certainly acts like she has something to gain from putting dents into scoreboards.]

In addition to the three homers, Cardinal hitters hit four doubles, all of them of the "to the fence" variety (if memory serves) rather than the "down the line" type. Left fielder Jackie Rinehart contributed to the key third inning rally by following Nelson's aforementioned double with a double of her own. Smith doubled ahead of the ball Nelson snuck over the right field fence in the fifth. Shortstop Lauren Lappin doubled ahead of Smith's scoreboard denter in the seventh.

In all, Stanford had 13 hits. SIU Coach Kerri Blaylock put it best: "I would just have to say ‘wow.' No one hit us that hard in three years. I thought Michigan was the hardest hitting team we faced, but I'm going to have to put Stanford up there. They hit everything we threw at them. We haven't had eight runs scored against us in I don't know how long. I give these guys credit."

SIU starter Harre agreed, saying "I don't think I've ever been hit that hard." Harre gave way to SIU reliever Cassidy Scoggins in the middle of the Stanford's third inning rally. The Cardinal did major damage to Scoggin's pre-game ERA of 0.52, which was the fourth best in the NCAA, by touching her up for six earned runs.

Stanford pitcher Becky McCullough went the distance. She gave up a solo homer to Saluki shortstop Lauren Hass in the second that tied the game, but was never really in trouble again until the seventh, when the Salukis had runners at the corners and no outs. A sharp line drive by Saluki catcher Amanda Clifton looked like it might give the Salukis late-inning life, until Cardinal second baseman Samantha Carter snagged it and doubled up Haas at first.

McCullough put in her typical solid, if not spectacular, performance in largely shutting down the Salukis' powerful bats. Her final line shows five hits one (earned) run allowed, with four strike outs and the first walk allowed by a Stanford pitcher in the Regional. According to Stanford Head Coach John Rittman, "She's a very smart pitcher for a freshman. [S]he was mixing speeds, changing locations and keeping them off balance."


  • The Catbird Seat, but Not the Finish Line

Without a doubt, Stanford is now in the position that every team desires after the first two games of a four-team regional. Stanford has the rest of Saturday off. Tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. (Pacific), Stanford will meet the winner of the Saturday evening elimination game. If Stanford wins the 11:00 a.m. game, it will win the regional. If it loses, there will be second championship game later Sunday.

Rittman understands his team's position. After the win, he said, "We feel good, but we know there is still a lot of work to do. We've been in this situation before, and we know tomorrow we've got to come out and bring our A-game. Whoever survives today is going to be fired up and ready to go."

  • Mizzou vs. Robert Morris

As I write this, Mizzou is blasting its way to a losers' bracket blowout of no. 4 seed Robert Morris. [Late insert: The final was 9-0 in a no hitter. Both Micaela Minner and Jen Bruck hit homers for the Tigers, pushing their team-leading totals to 16 on the year.] This sets up an elimination game between Missouri and Southern Illinois Saturday evening.

Regardless of the outcome of that game, Stanford will face a power hitting team. Indeed, all three of the teams still alive can put a charge into the ball. Expect the Sunday game(s) to go to the team that keeps the ball in the yard while pitching and deposits it over the fence while hitting.

  • Check; Check; (Sort of) Check

In this space yesterday, three keys to victory were suggested. How did Stanford do in meeting these goals?

"(a) Hit with runners on base." Stanford plated six baserunners and stranded five. Six scored and five were stranded. Nice work, ladies. [The Salukis stranded all five of their baserunners.]

"(b) Keep the ball in the ball park." Southern Illinois's power hitters managed one home run, but only one. Nice work, Becky.

"(c) Take some pitches." Today's home plate umpire, Harley Anderson, had a significantly larger strike zone than yesterday's Christie Cornwell. Thus, patience at the plate was not as much of a virtue today as it was yesterday.

However, if I have the umpire rotation figured correctly, Cornwell should be behind the plate in one of the two games tomorrow, if there are two. If so, Stanford's characteristic patience should serve them well.

  • The Key Number

One fun, though completely irrelevant, thing about softball and baseball is that there are numbers everywhere. In Columbia this weekend, the key number is 9. Three of the first four games have been won by the team scoring nine runs. [Stanford 9, Robert Morris 0; Stanford 9, Southern Illinois 1; Mizzou 9, Robert Morris 0.]

"First team to nine," I guess. With all the power left in this regional, that might not be quite as silly as it sounds!

  • KZSU Internet Broadcast

Our friends at KZSU deserve lots of credit for figuring out how to get the broadcast to stream today. There are gremlins that might still bedevil us tomorrow, though.

If you are joining us for tomorrow's call, I would recommend the following strategy: (1) try KZSU2 first; (2) try KZSU3 if step one does not work; (3) try a few minutes later if neither step one nor step two works. If problems creep up, there will be folks working in the basement of Memorial Auditorium trying to correct them.

By the way, Mrs. MizzouCard recorded today's broadcast as a souvenir for MiniMizzouCard. Lets … uhm … just … uhm … say … uhm … that … uhm … I … uhm … had … uhm … no … uhm … idea … I … uhm … was … uhm … such … uhm ... an … "uhmmer." Sorry about that. [As we lawyers like to say about those who seek free legal advice, you get what you pay for!]

Line Score

                   1 2 3  4 5 6  7   R  H  E
Stanford           1 0 3  0 2 0  3   9 13  2
Southern Illinois  0 1 0  0 0 0  0   1  5  2


In Saturday's nightcap, Mizzou blasted Southern Illinois by a score of (well, by now you should know what the winning team's score was—see above) 9 to 0 in five innings. Mizzou shortstop Heather Kunkel, obviously upset that the two Tigers who shared the team home run lead with her going into the regional hit home runs in Mizzou's losers' bracket win over Robert Morris, righted the temporary inequity with a shot of her own to get back into the tie for the team lead at 16.

Today was obviously a very good day for Stanford, because it won the winner's bracket game decisively (9-1) and took the rest of the day off. But it was arguably an even better day for Mizzou. Mizzou pitchers threw two consecutive mercy rule shortened no-hitters. Mizzou had three home runs and 18 runs on the day. Its second set of nine runs came against a pitching staff that was one of the best in the country statistically. [Southern Illinois pitcher Cassidy Scoggins, on the other hand, had a day she would just as soon forget. This morning her ERA stood at .52. Now it is almost certainly above 1.00, even though some of the damage came off of reliever Amy Harre.]

There is plenty of reason to fear Mizzou in the championship game(s). Then again, there is plenty of reason for Mizzou to fear Stanford. If we eliminate the Regional's opening game, which saw the Salukis beat the Tigers 3-0, Mizzou and Stanford have almost identical records this weekend. Each blasted the enthusiastic but overmatched Robert Morris Colonials 9-0. Each scored nine runs in overpowering a very skilled Southern Illinois team today (though Stanford did allow the Salukis to score a single run and took seven innings to collect its nine runs). Each hit three home runs today (though it took Mizzou two games to do it).

Although Becky McCullough has been strong for Stanford, one would have to give a slight pitching edge to Mizzou in the four "rule of nine" games, due to the back-to-back no hitters. [The first, against Robert Morris, was actually a perfect game. Only a pair of walks kept the second from being another perfect game.] Also, McCullough worked a full seven-inning game on Saturday. Mizzou was able to save its workhorse, Erin Kalka, after only one inning of work against Robert Morris, by posting six runs in the top halves of the first two innings. Mizzou Coach Ty Singleton rolled the dice in the nightcap by sending lefty Erica Peterson into the circle to save Kalka for a hoped-for matchup with the Cardinal on Sunday. The gamble paid off in a big way when Peterson threw her first (solo) college no-hitter.

Thus, the teams head into the regional final(s) on a rather unusual note. The winners' bracket winner, Stanford, used its ace for a full seven innings today. The elimination bracket winner, Mizzou, largely rested its ace. Although softball pitchers are more durable than their baseball counterparts, one still has to give a slight nod to Mizzou in the "state of the ace" category. Also, Mizzou will have a large and, if today is any indication, boisterous crowd. Finally, it has the advantage of confidence from recent experience. Just last weekend, it lost the first game of its four-team bracket in the Big 12 Tournament, then reeled off four straight wins in elimination games to win that bracket. This seems to be a team that plays its best with its back to the wall.

Happily for Stanford fans, that first game between Southern Illinois and Mizzou still counts. Indeed, it stands now as the difference between these two hot squads. It means that Mizzou would have to win twice tomorrow, while Stanford only needs one win. That is the primary difference between the two squads at the moment, and it is a rather substantial difference.

What will happen tomorrow? Although both Mizzou and Stanford have benefited from strong pitching this weekend, it is hard to ignore those four straight nines. I look for the game(s) tomorrow to be high scoring affairs. I realize that I am going out on a limb here, but it seems to me that the winner(s) will have nine runs on the board! However, mark me down for about seven or eight for the loser(s). Seriously, I look for back and forth games with plenty of scoring (though probably not any more nines in the run column). This could be a lot of fun! [It would be more fun if one of our teams did not have to end the day with a loss, of course.]

Note: If Mizzou wins the 11:00 a.m. (Pacific) game tomorrow, the press of getting ready to broadcast the second game will prevent me from filing a report between games. Look for something here some time after Stanford's last game tomorrow, whenever that occurs.

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