COLLEGE STATION, Tex. -- Score first. When the softball season gets
to crunch time, so only good teams are left, that is always a good idea.
Last week, each of the three critical Regional games between the University of
Massachusetts and Stanford was won by the team that scored first.
Starting strong looked like a tall order for Stanford this week, given that the opposing pitcher was probable national Player of the Year Megan Gibson. Gibson started the game 36-1, with a 0.92 ERA and eight strikeouts per game. In the first innings of her last two games, she struck out the side.
Nonetheless, Stanford leadoff hitter Alissa Haber started the game by turning on a 2-2 pitch and shooting it to right center. Moments later, she stood on first base with a single.
That, though, was the high point of the game for the Cardinal. Things started to unravel almost immediately, when a first base umpire punched Haber out, apparently for leaving the base early. Gibson then settled into her usual first-inning pattern, striking out middle infielders Shannon Koplitz and Maddy Coon.
The bottom of the first frame proved to be even more disastrous for the Cardinal. Aggie leadoff hitter Rhiannon Kliesing, also facing a 2-2 count, hit an opposite-field home run. Later in the same inning, A&M right fielder Holly Ridley hit a three-run homer into the scoreboard beyond left field.
When arguably the best pitcher and almost certainly the best player in the country is up four runs, the game's outcome seems somewhat inevitable. Stanford battled, putting runners on base in the second, third, sixth, and seventh innings, and scoring one in the sixth by stringing together a walk by Haber, a double by Koon, and an RBI groundout by catcher Rosey Neill. But when Ridley added another home run in the fifth, this one plating two runs, the Aggies were out of the Cardinal's reach. Gibson finished with ten strikeouts in a complete-game victory.
The two teams will battle again Sunday at 12:30 PT. If A&M wins, it advances to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. If Stanford wins, it will force a deciding third game, which will start approximately half an hour after the end of the second game. ESPNU is planning to broadcast all games from this Super Regional.
.....0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 3 1
Texas A&M 4 0 0 0 2 0 X 6 7 1
WP: Megan Gibson, 7.0 innings, 10 Ks, three walks, 1 earned run
LP: Missy Penna, 5.1 innings, three Ks, three walks, five earned runs (relieved by Ashley Chinn, who had one K and gave up one hit and one walk in 2/3 of an inning)
Does Not Feel So Super: Stanford has still not won a game in any Super Regional, having lost two games to Tennessee in 2005 and two to Alabama in 2006. If you are looking for a "theme" or an explanation, try the opponents' starting pitching. Stanford keeps running into one of the country's best pitchers in the Super Regional, from Tennessee's Monica Abbott to Alabama's Stephanie Vanbrakle to A&M's Gibson.
Snake Bit: Haber's unusual "leaving early" out was the first of several glitches and oddities that seemed to suggest that this was not going to be Stanford's day. Erin Howe mishandled a ground ball in the A&M half of the first and the Cardinal had at least one other bobbled ball in the field. The last home run hit the foul pole (a.k.a. the "fair pole") just beyond the reach of Cardinal left fielder Tricia Aggabao. (Unlike the major league umpires who struggle with a couple of these "just inside the pole and just over the fence" calls earlier this week, the home-run call on this one was correct, but the ball was only fair by a foot or less.)
The Hard Luck Award has to go to designated player Melissa Koutz, however. Hitting with Howe on first and two out in the second, Koutz put a charge into a ball that seemed destined for the right-field corner for at least a double — until A&M first baseman Kliessing snagged it on a nice defensive play. In her next at-bat in the fifth, Koutz again made solid contact, hitting a long fly ball to the wall outside the foul pole. Actually, it got a bit of help getting to the wall. A&M left fielder Kelsey Spittler bobbled the ball, which then hit the wall, bouncing back into Spittler's glove. That should have been a foul ball, of course, but the umpire signaled an out. (MiniMizzouCard suggested that the very high walls at the A&M field are not an accident. There are there for fly ball assists!) The game was not close enough for these plays to have made a difference in the outcome, but the karma did not seemed to be aligned correctly for the Cardinal today. (For a possible explanation, see "Maybe It Is Our Fault" below.)
You Don't See That Every Day: Aggie second baseman Natalie Villareal hits left-handed. That is pretty unusual for a middle infielder. Far more unusual, though, is her throwing hand — again, left. I have not yet figured out how she pivots on the double play, and I hope we don't find out tomorrow.
How Does She Do It? Unlike Abbott and many other dominant pitchers, Gibson is not extremely tall or otherwise physically imposing. She throws hard, but at least a few throw harder. So what is her secret? As with so many good pitchers, control seems to be the key. The unofficial MizzouCard scorebook (the source off all game statistics cited in this article) shows that fully half of her ten strikeouts came on 1-2 counts. In softball, with the short distance between the pitching circle and home plate, the pitcher really gets an edge with a 0-2 or 1-2 count. Because the batter has to commit so quickly, a pitcher can waste a pitch low or high and still perhaps tempt an almost always doomed swing.
Could Have Been Worse: The first inning was bad enough for Stanford, but it could have been worse. Cardinal third baseman Michelle Smith recorded the second out of the inning on a nice backhand snag of a foul line drive. Coon recorded the third out on an equally nifty grab of a Texas League foul ball that seemed destined for "no man's land" between third base, shortstop, and left field.
Tough Place to Play: A&M fans are proudly loud, obnoxious, and rude to the opposition. Of course, "obnoxious" is in the eye of the beholder, as witnessed by the pride with which A&M points to its "Twelfth Man" tradition, but the locals gave the Cardinal (and its fans) plenty of grief throughout the game. My nominee for the Bootleg Favorite Taunt Award came from a fan who yelled this after a rally-thwarting line out by the Cardinal: "Face it, Stanford. You are a basketball school. What did you expect to happen here?"
Maybe It Is Our Fault: On a purely personal note, MiniMizzouCard and I are trying hard to convince ourselves that our road trips are NOT the cause of Stanford's losses in the post season, even though we have taken eleven previous road trips to see various Stanford teams, from baseball to football to men's and women's basketball to softball, in assorted postseason events, and Stanford has not won a single one of these events, despite several close calls. However, Mini feels we must admit to our Bootleg friends that, if he has it counted correctly, the Stanford and Mizzou baseball and softball teams are now 0-6 against A&M this season. Yes, that includes A&M beating Mizzou today in baseball in Oklahoma City (as we were blasting through that town on the way to College Station) and thereby keeping Mizzou out of the Big 12 Tournament title game. But we got up before 5:00 a.m. and drove 850 miles just to get the chance to cheer for the Cardinal, so please be nice to us, even if it is our fault.
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