Stanford Survives Wild Regional Final

Stanford Softball entered Sunday against host Missouri with a decisive advantage, needing just one win out of the two possible games in the double-elimination format. But the drama and tension in Columbia felt like a do-or-die championship affair. The Cardinal had their first tight game of the postseason, and our man in Missouri has every hair-raising detail...

For fans of Stanford or, for that matter, any other institution or team, there is nothing quite like watching "the" team hitting on all cylinders while cruising to a rather clear victory. But championships are not won by teams who are always at their best. [None of us human beings are always at our best. A team is a collection of individuals, so it follows that no team is always at its best.]

Championships are won by teams who are able to somehow grind out a win against a good team when they are not at their best. Nowhere is this more true than in NCAA post-season play, with its brutal "lose this one and your season is over" format. [Even in the unusual double elimination NCAA sports of softball and baseball, there is little margin for error.]

For fans who prefer solid efforts, Stanford's softball team provided its round one 9-0 victory over Robert Morris and a 9-1 win over a tough Southern Illinois team in Saturday's winners' bracket game. For those who needed to see Stanford survive the crucible of the shaky outing, there was Sunday's game against Missouri. As Stanford Coach John Rittman noted, "Uncharacteristically, we made a few mistakes today."

While it is true that Stanford, at least in theory, could have lost Sunday's first (and, is it turned out, only) game against Mizzou, it certainly did not look that way to those at Columbia's University Field. After Mizzou called on lefty Erica Peterson to get the last out in the third, Stanford was not able to plate a single run. Perhaps this should not have been surprising. Yesterday the Mizzou sophomore with the awkward delivery and the nasty off-speed stuff threw three hitless innings against Robert Morris in the losers' bracket game, then came back in the nightcap and tossed her first solo no-hitter against the solid Southern Illinois offense.

With all due respect to the solid three starts from Stanford starter Becky McCullough, Peterson was the star pitcher this weekend. Although Stanford did manage the Regional's first three hits against Peterson, she threw 4.1 innings of scoreless softball. Peterson, who deserves Academy Award consideration for the believability of the grunt that accompanies her change-up, was the first pitcher this weekend to have Stanford hitters off balance.

Stanford had no interest in taking its chances against her in a second game, in front of a crowd that would have been at fever pitch if Mizzou could have won the first and thereby run its Regional win streak to three. Therefore, the nail biter against the Tigers very much had the feel of an elimination game for both teams.

In that tense atmosphere, Stanford did not make life easy for itself or its fans. After two relatively quick outs in the first, Stanford workhorse Becky McCullough walked the dangerous Jen Bruck, the Tiger designated hitter. That brought the even more dangerous Micaela Minner, who Tiger Coach Ty Singleton had moved into the clean up spot in a slight shakeup of the usual order, to the dish. The impressive Tiger left fielder blasted McCullough's 2-1 offering over the 220 sign in dead center, giving the Tigers an early 2-0 advantage and giving the Tiger freshman, like her Stanford counterpart Michelle Smith, the single season home run record at her school (with 17). In a single season, she has moved into a tie for fifth on the Mizzou career home run list.

For the first time all weekend, Stanford was behind. The Cardinal threatened to respond in the next half inning. After Leah Nelson, the hitting star of the Regional, popped out to Tiger first baseman Amanda Renth, speedy Stanford left fielder Jackie Rinehart grounded Tiger starter Erin Kalka's first offering and beat Tiger shortstop Heather Kunkel's throw to first. Kalka then walked Cardinal first baseman Erin Howe. Stanford right fielder Meghan Sickler's grounder up the middle was not sharply hit enough to elude Tiger second baseman Sarah Stringer, who flipped the ball to Kunkel to retire Howe at second, but the Tigers were not able to turn the double play. Cardinal second baseman Tricia Aggaboa's swinging bunt almost plated Rinehart, but Kalka grabbed it (while sliding into the splits) and fired from the seat of her pants to Tiger catcher Kathy Masterson, who applied the tag on the sliding Rinehart. With that play, which seemed rather wild at the time, it was beginning to look like it was not going to be Stanford's day.

In Stanford's next turn at bat, that feeling intensified when what can best be called a baserunning adventure took the air out of what had looked like the start of a Stanford rally. The first hitter in the Stanford third was designated hitter Katherine Hoffman. In anticipation of a bunt or slap hit, Mizzou pulled in its infielders. Instead, Hoffman lofted a line drive over the left side of the drawn-in Tiger infield. Cardinal center fielder Catalina Morris then smashed a line drive to right center. With runners at second and third, shortstop Lauren Lappin put a charge into Kalka's 1-1 pitch, but Tiger left fielder Minner was able to catch it without so much as a step in either direction.

If Lappin's well-struck out was not enough to give Stanford fans a serious case of the willies, the next play certainly did the trick. Kalka, clearly mindful of Cardinal Michelle Smith's substantial offensive capabilities, threw her a high, outside pitch. "High" and "outside" in the previous sentence should be understood in the Bob Uecker sense from the movie Major League. The pitch sailed out of the reach of catcher Masterson and hit the backstop. Hoffman started for home, then saw that this was an instance where the pitch was so bad that it quickly rebounded off the screen back to Masterson. Hoffman hit the brakes, and headed back to third.

In the mean time, the Tiger defense was on its own adventure. Catcher Masterson, unaware that Hoffman was headed back to third, instinctively fired to Kalka, who was covering the plate after her wild pitch. That throw sailed past her.

Not to be outdone, the Stanford baserunners were on their own adventure. After heading back toward third, Hoffman saw that Morris, who had broken for third when Hoffman broke for the plate, was almost there already. Out of options, Hoffman slammed on the brakes again, did another 180, and headed back to the plate.

In the Tiger infield, second baseman Sarah Stringer grabbed Masterson's overthrow and fired it back to the Tiger pitcher, who swept the tag onto the sliding Hoffman. Although it is not fair to fault Hoffman, who reacted to every twist in this plot the way Stanford fans and coaches would want her to react, the Cardinal had managed to commit the "Cardinal sin" of erasing a runner in scoring position for RBI machines Smith and Nelson.

From the opposing perspective, the second straight inning with a successful play at the plate brought the Tiger faithful to their feet. Their enthusiasm was dampened little by Kalka's eventual walking of Smith. Far worse things can happen to a pitcher with a runner at third and Smith at the plate. The picture darkened for Stanford's fans when Kalka earned an 0-2 count on Leah Nelson.

After failing to tempt Nelson with a high fastball, Kalka threw what became the game's most significant pitch on 1-2. Nelson turned on a pitch that caught too much of the strike zone, lofting a very high fly ball to left center. Tiger centerfielder had plenty of time to move under the fly, and gave every appearance of someone about to rob Nelson at the wall. However, she eventually ran out of real estate and came up empty. Stanford led 3-2.

That was all for Kalka. Of course, after Peterson replaced her, that was pretty much all for the Cardinal offense, too. In the Stanford fifth, Lappin laid down a nice bunt and appeared to beat Masterson's throw by at least a step, if not two, for the first hit against Peterson all weekend. However, first base umpire James Martarona disagreed, much to the dismay of Stanford Coach John Rittman, who spent the period between half innings in Martarona's face before home plate umpire Bryan Smith intervened.

Stanford ultimately did manage a few hits off of Peterson. Michelle Smith started the Stanford sixth with a double down the line. After Peterson retired Nelson and Rinehart, Howe advanced pinch runner Anna Beardman to third with an infield single, but Peterson struck out Sickler to thwart the threat. Hoffman added another single in the seventh, but was caught stealing with two outs.

Thus, it was up to the Stanford pitching and defense to preserve the precarious 3-2 lead through five tense innings. Like the Cardinal offense, the Cardinal defense was not at its best.

In the fourth, Tiger designated player Jen Bruck singled up the middle, setting up Minner with nobody out. Minner grounded McCullough's 1-1 pitch directly back to her. McCullough snagged it and turned to fire to second. Unfortunately, her throw was well off the bag on the third base side. Stanford shortstop Lappin, perhaps following teammate Hoffman's lead, herself slammed on the brakes and threw herself into a prone position, snagging the errant throw, but only momentarily. As she slammed to the ground, the ball popped loose. Facing a potential disaster largely of her own making, the resilient Stanford pitcher induced flyouts from Renth and the powerful Kunkel before striking out Masterson to close out the inning.

In the fifth, Tiger leadoff hitter Leanne Bowers sent a grounder to the right side of the infield and just beat Cardinal first baseman Erin Howe to the bag. With two outs, the Tigers decided to send Bowers. Nelson gunned a nice throw to Lappin, who applied the tag but then lost the ball. [This must have been the first time the sure handed Lappin dropped any sort of ball twice in one afternoon since she was a toddler. However, neither instance was scored as an error by Lappin.]

That set up a bit more adventure. With the left handed hitting Janessa Roening, a major RBI producer for the Tigers, at the plate, the Cardinal did not give a moment's thought to the possibility of Bowers trying to steal third. However, when Bowers saw that Cardinal third baseman Smith drifted a bit too far forward of the bag, she took off. Nelson fired to third, and . . .

Well, for a brief moment, every Cardinal partisan's heart was in his or her throat. With nobody covering third, it appeared that Nelson's rocket throw was headed toward left field to tie the game. Out of nowhere came a diving Lappin, again in a prone position toward third base. Amazingly, she somehow propelled herself far enough to snag Nelson's throw, keeping Bowers at third. Roening and McCullough then battled to a 3-2 count before McCullough snagged Roening's line drive for the third out.

Tiger hitting star Minner, who the Cardinal was never able to get out, singled with one out in the sixth. Renth then hit into a 6-4-3 double play. In the seventh, McCullough induced a ground out from Kunkel and then struck out Matheson. McCullough and others clad in cardinal thought she struck out pinch hitter Sara Simons on a 2-2 fastball that appeared be down the middle, but she did not get the call. A pitch later, she walked Simons, to put the potential winning run at the plate in the person of pinch hitter Alyson Tobyne. With a 1-2 count, McCullough again threw the meat ball. When Tobyne watched, home plate umpire Smith had seen enough. When he rang up Tobyne, Stanford won the Columbia regional.

It was not pretty, though it was exciting. However, let's give credit where credit is due. On a day when an opposing pitcher largely shut down Stanford's offense, when wild bounces and bad timing cost the Cardinal both baserunners on offense and outs on defense, when the Cardinal starter threw a first inning gopher ball, when bodies and softballs were flying every which way, when a hostile crowd did its best to urge on their team and help them with the umpires, the Cardinal battled.

Much as we enjoy them, blowout wins do not build character. When a team can struggle but do just enough to win when things are not going well, its fans should be encouraged.

NOTES

  • Stanford Pitching

As indicated above, Becky McCullough was not the star pitcher of this Regional. However, she put in a whale of a performance, logging all but two of Stanford's defensive innings this weekend. She is definitely a battler who comes back impressively from adversity. In the first Stanford inning of the regional, Robert Morris had the bases loaded with only one out. In the second inning of the second game, she gave up a homer to Southern Illinois shortstop Lauren Haas. In the first inning of the final against Mizzou, she gave up a home run to Minner. In each instance, McCullough quickly righted the ship.

The aces from several teams left in the Tournament have more impressive numbers than McCullough. But she is a gamer. She seems to know how to get hitters out when she really needs those outs. Also, she proved to be capable of throwing a lot of innings.

As Rittman noted after the game, McCullough did not have her best stuff against Mizzou, because she was not fresh, but she was hitting her spots and letting her defense make plays behind her. In discussing the fact that McCullough "hung a pitch [to Minner] and she knew it," Rittman said that McCullough is "just an ideal kid to coach." She fits this Stanford fan's image of the best of Stanford athletes—tough and smart. A few others may have better stuff, but the Cardinal is in good hands with McCullough in the circle.

  • The Leah Nelson Show

Although several Stanford players sparkled this weekend, including but not limited to Smith, Lappin, Morris, Hoffman, Rinehart, Elizabeth Bendig, and McCullough, Leah Nelson would have to be considered the regional MVP. After three home runs in two days, one suspects that, whenever Leah hears a reference to "Columbia, Missouri" from here on out it will bring a smile to her face.

  • Post-Game Interview

I just cannot resist the temptation to share MiniMizzouCard's post-game interviews on KZSU2 with those of you who had left us for Sunken Diamond.

Mini: "Coach Rittman is here to talk about this regional. Coach, how do you think your team performed? Obviously they were good, but how good?"

Rittman: "I am very proud of our team, the way we battled back. We were down two runs today. Gave up a two run homer in the first inning. I can't say enough about our freshman pitcher, Becky McCullough, who just battled all day. We got a big hit again from Leah Nelson. I am so proud of our team. We just have to get ready for Tennessee next weekend now."

Mini: "Speaking of Tennessee, they have one of the nation's top pitchers. Do you think you will be able to hit her like you did [Southern Illinois'] top pitcher?"

Rittman: "Wow. You've done your homework, buddy, I am impressed. She is a very good pitcher. We are going to have to be really be selective and look for good pitches down in the zone. She throws with a lot of velocity. It is going to be a challenge for us, but I know our team is going to up to the challenge."

Mini: "Good luck and thanks for chatting. Now we have Leah Nelson, the player of the game two times out of three. Leah, you had a great performance in this regional. How do you think you did?"

Nelson: "I am really happy with my performance. I have been working on my swing lately. A lot of the balls I hit, I didn't expect them to go out, but I am glad they did."

Mini: "I think all of us are proud of that performance. Are you going to come in with the same approach against Tennessee's top pitcher?"

Nelson: "Definitely. We are all going to aggressive at the plate. We know that we can hit any pitcher. Any pitcher they throw we can hit."

Mini: "We all believe that is so. Prove us right, and good luck with Tennessee."

Nelson: "Thank you."

  • Do Not Miss the Chance to See This Team!

Happily, in a temporary flash of sanity, the NCAA has scheduled next weekend's Super Regional against Tennessee for the Farm's Smith Family Stadium. Tennessee is a substantial opponent with one of the best pitchers, if not the best, in the country.

After battling against hostile crowds the last two days, this team deserves your support. What's more, I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy watching this team. McCullough pitches with guts and savvy. The Cardinal defense is usually sold, and Lappin is often spectacular. Smith, Nelson, and others can really crush the ball. Also, this team smiles and enjoys the game, even when behind.

The MizzouCard family thought of this team as its own this weekend. It is hard for us to see them leave town.

We did our part, but now we are sending them back to you good folks on the West Coast. It's up to you now. Don't blow it!

  • Thank You's

MiniMizzouCard and I have a few thank you's to note as this Regional closes. The first goes to Mike Eubanks for posting these regional reports on the front page of The Bootleg. Sean Bruich of KZSU Sports was kind enough to not laugh at my suggestion of broadcasting the games on KZSU this weekend. That in itself was great, but he also worked hard to convince others that they should allow me to acquire a media credential for the weekend. KZSU Sports Engineer Lee Zen somehow overcame the gremlins haunting the system to get the broadcasts of the second and third games streaming over the internet. Stanford Softball SID Aimee Dombroski made the arrangements to get me media credentials for the weekend. She and our friends at KZSU took a big chance on us, and we are glad that they did. Mrs. MizzouCard (HumBio 1986) kept things running at home this weekend and worked to confirm that there was indeed something coming over the internet. She and our daughter also produced tapes of the broadcasts which will be prized possessions for yours truly for many years (after Leah Nelson's father copies them and returns them to us).

Finally and most importantly, I have to thank my weekend broadcast partner, MiniMizzouCard, for his hard work in compiling statistics and providing color commentary. While his father clearly should not (and will not!) give up the day job, I think Nathaniel just might have a future in this business (as Rittman suggested after the post-game interview). I doubt that there have been many eleven year old color "men" before, but I am sure there has never been anyone any better! It was a special weekend for Mini and I—one that will be long remembered by both of us.


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