A&M finishes Stanford softball's season, 9-4

Texas A&M jumped to a 7-0 lead before finishing off Stanford and advancing to the College World Series. Michelle Smith hit a two-run homer in her last at-bat, Maddy Coon hit a solo shot in the fourth and pitcher Ashley Chinn struck out seven, but it wasn't enough in the high Texas heat. MizzouCard and his faithful sidesick Mini provide a first-hand account.

Texas A&M 0 2 2 3 0 2 0 -- 9 13 0
Stanford..... 0 0 0 2 0 2 0 -- 4 8 2

WP: A&M's Megan Gibson, 7.0 innings, 1 Ks, 2 walks, 8 hits, 3 earned runs

LP: Stanford's Missy Penna, 2.0 innings, 2 Ks, 1 walk, 4 hits, 4 earned runs
Reliever: Stanford's Ashley Chinn, 5.0 innings, 7 Ks, 2 walks, 9 hits, 4 earned runs

The second game of the Softball Super Regional between Stanford and Texas A&M was like the first, only more so. More hitting by A&M (and Stanford). More shaky defense by Stanford. And, especially, more heat and more humidity.

After Missy Penna worked through an uneventful top of the first, Stanford (in the home dugout for the second game of the series) tried to mount a first-inning threat for the second straight game. After shortstop Maddy Coon's two-out single to left center, Coon attempted to move into scoring position via a steal. To the admittedly biased eyes of the Stanford fans, it looked like she slid by the tag. The umpire saw it differently, though, punching a Stanford runner out on the bases in the first for the second straight day.

Like the day before, the loss of the first-inning runner proved to be the beginning of a very early end to Stanford's chances. A&M's Holly Ridley, who hit two homers yesterday, opened the top of the second with a ground-ball single off the glove of Stanford second baseman Shannon Koplitz (who almost certainly would not have had a play even if she had gloved it cleanly). Three hitters later, A&M shortstop Macie Murrow, who hits left-handed like her double-play partner Natalie Villarreal, smashed a two-run homer.

Although they ended their half of the second when they lost Kelsey Spittler on a stolen base attempt, A&M never looked back. After Aggie ace Megan Gibson threw a 1-2-3 bottom of the second, A&M first baseman Rhiannon Kliesing opened the third with a home run. This, too, was "déjà vu all over again," as Kliesing opened the A&M first inning yesterday with a solo homer.

After Villarreal singled, Stanford coach John Rittman replaced starter Missy Penna with Ashley Chinn. Chinn was reasonably effective, notably stopping the A&M home run parade. However, A&M eventually plated Villarreal and added three runs in the fourth and two in the sixth.

Like yesterday, Stanford did not die without a fight. Maddy Coon opened the Stanford scoring with a fourth-inning solo homer. Michelle Smith walked later in the fourth and eventually scored on designated player Melissa Koutz's single. Gibson ended Stanford's bid to get back in the game by retiring Cardinal left fielder Tricia Aggabao on a fly ball foul to first baseman Kliesing. Stanford also added two in the sixth, but that rally ended on a double play and a ground out.

One thing did change between the two games. As the line score reflects, the Cardinal hitters were substantially more effective today, with eight hits, a significant number against perhaps the best pitcher in the country. Also, after striking out ten times yesterday, Stanford struck out only once today.

With the win, Texas A&M punched its ticket to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series. After beating Stanford 6-1 yesterday, A&M needed only one win today to take the Super Regional.

Notes

Snake Bit Again: Although not as often as yesterday, Stanford suffered at least two excruciating "almosts." Aggabao hit a hard grounder that would have been a double to the corner had it not snuck just left of the third base bag. Even more painfully, when Rittman sent freshman reserve catcher Brittany Minder to pinch hit for Aggabao in the sixth, there was a moment—or maybe a fraction of a moment—when it looked like Stanford might have battled its way back into the game. After Michelle Smith's homer (see below), Erin Howe singled and then moved to third on Koutz's single. With runners at the corners, Minder smoked a ball that looked to be destined for the right field corner until Cardinal killer Kliesing snagged it with a shoetop catch and then stepped on the bag to double up Koutz.

It Is the Heat, AND the Humidity: I don't spend enough time anywhere near Houston to know if it is the heat or the humidity, but it sure was hot and humid. Between innings, the PA announcer invited fans to visit the EMTs or the "cooling stations" under the stands. As a Denver Broncos fan, this reminded me of the signs in Mile High Field reminding visiting teams that they were playing in the oxygen-thin air of a stadium a mile above sea level.

It is clear that the locals have developed strategies for dealing with the heat. Even the security guard at the George Bush Presidential Library Museum made mention of the special home field advantage the heat gives A&M teams when he saw Mini's Stanford tee shirt before the game. A&M pitcher Gibson spent most of each mid-inning television timeout break in the cool (relatively speaking) confines of the dugout, emerging only at the last moment to throw a few "warm up" pitches. Meanwhile, when their turns came, Stanford's pitchers hustled out of the dugout, threw their warm-up pitches, and then waited in the hot sun for the ESPNU official to give the signal for play to begin.

Long innings in the heat and humidity are tough on fielders, especially those who have the good sense not to live in a climate with intense heat and humidity. Despite some nice defensive plays, Stanford's defense was not always crisp. Several balls bounced off of gloves. To give credit where credit was due, A&M played solid, even occasionally spectacular, defense.

Props for the Cardinal Faithful: Despite the heat, Stanford fans came out feisty and loud today. We did not match the decibels of the admittedly enthusiastic and loud (but also quite boorish) A&M fans. We were massively outnumbered, after all. But we hung in there. [Sadly, I did not get the chance to use the line I was saving for the moment when we got back in the game: "Hello, Oklahoma City Super Eight? We might not need that reservation after all." Too bad. I would have really enjoyed that one.]

All Rise—Please: Although we only get to see Stanford via the internet before the Cardinal's occasional postseason trips to the country's midsection, it is our understanding that Missy Penna's best pitch is her rise ball. As sometimes happens in sports (and, for that matter, in life), her best weapon seemed to betray her this weekend. Either the rise ball did not rise or the A&M hitters saw the rise coming and adjusted. In a game's worth of innings (seven) this weekend, Penna gave up five home runs. But she will be back. With her rise ball working.

The Third One is the Charm: Meanwhile, Ashley Chinn gave Cardinal fans additional reason to be optimistic for next season. Although four earned runs in five innings is a lot by softball standards, it still seemed like Chinn slowed down A&M's potent offense on a day when the conditions definitely favored the hitters. Mini observed that she repeatedly got to an 0-2 count, but then sometimes had trouble closing the deal. The key for Chinn will be to develop a reliable "out pitch." Actually, she probably needs two such pitches. From our angle, it appeared that she banged the outside low corner once she got to two strikes, but she was not getting that call. Even without much help on the outside corner from the person behind the catcher, she still struck out seven Aggies. If she can develop another way to ring up hitters when she is ahead, look for good things from her in the future.

Thanks for the Memories: That future will be without graduating seniors Becky McCullough, Michelle Smith, Erin Howe, Tricia Aggabao, and Anna Beardman. It is always hard to say goodbye to seniors, but it is even harder than usual for the MizzouCard crew this year. This was the last part of the team that came to our home town of Columbia to win the Regional in 2005 when eleven year old MiniMizzouCard and I made our KZSU broadcasting debut from the roof of the University Field press box. [Stanford sports have brought many great times to Mini and me. But it is hard to top doing play-by-play with your Stanford sports nut son.] This class was also part of the 2006 Super Regional we saw in Tuscaloosa when Stanford pitching legend Marcy Crouch joined the broadcast team and, of course, this year's College Station Super Regional. We so wanted to see them in Oklahoma City once, but this group gave us a lot of great memories even without that trip.

As Smith came to bat in the sixth, a young Cardinal fan behind us noted that this might be her last at-bat. He turned out to be right. Smith came through with a two-run homer over left field that brought to mind her amazing freshman season, when she hit a school-record 19 dingers (a record she now shares with catcher Rosey Neill's equally amazing season this year). Thanks for one more fine memory, Michelle.


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