Sliding Into the Diamond Dust
By Tim Pollins
Following are a boatload of 24-carat thoughts that entered my tiny brain as I watched the 2017 softball playoffs, up to and including the Women's College World Series. In no particular order:
1) Final Matchup: Sooners do it again! Florida and Oklahoma entered the postseason with each having won two of the past four titles. The victor in this tilt would own a third recent championship and bragging rights. Game 1 was a roller coaster ride for the ages, with unlikely comebacks by Florida falling just short in the 17-inning affair. Game 2, though feeling a bit anticlimactic at first, ratcheted up the intensity and the prcoeedings were taut thereafter. The Sooners grabbed the national crown with their unique blend of dominant pitching, stellar defense, clutch hitting, blazing team speed, and the inspired coaching of Patty Gasso. In 2016, Oklahoma was deemed by many — myself included — to be a year away from being serious contenders. Instead, they became white-hot and steamrolled to the crown. This year there was talk of the ballclub being less hungry right up until they went on another blistering tear and — despite some anxious moments courtesy of North Dakota State — the Sooners dispatched whichever teams stood in their way of a title defense. The players are smart and clutch and Gasso, their fearless leader, routinely makes gutsy calls as if they were no-brainers.
2) Here's how I imagine the exchange went between a Minnesota Representative and a member of the Selection Committee:
MR: In this year of stifled offense, we have two of the few players who have over 70 runs batted in, plus a 20-homer hitter. Our workhorse pitcher is no worse than the second or third best performer in the circle in the country. Our four best regular batters hit for averages of .426, .396, .380, and .374. All 8 of our batters who started every game hit .330 or above. Entering the upcoming playoffs, the team is 14-0 at home this season, 18-3 on the road, and 18-0 at neutral sites. The ballclub was 22-1 in Big Ten competition. Against non-conference opponents who are in this tournament, the Golden Gophers collected two wins apiece from Texas, Notre Dame, and North Dakota State, and one each from LSU, Fresno State, Oregon State, and California. In picking up those 10 impressive victories, Minnesota lost zero games against that group. The Gophers were ranked as high as #1 late in the campaign by both major polls. So how do you rate this juggernaut?
SC: Um, a 17th seed, I guess.
And that led to what will always be called The Minnesota Snub.
If the Selection Committee member had been a single individual, he would have been peppered with questions along the lines of “It's personal, isn't it?” I had Minnesota in my top 3 for most of the season, as obviously did many others. For them not to be given one of the 16 national seeds was a miscarriage of justice. In addition to Minnesota, the shocking twist was unfair to Alabama. Based on its own excellent track record, the Crimson Tide was just a tad down this season and was mostly hoping to be considered strong enough to host a regional. They were, but having the Golden Gophers on tap as a second-round opponent was not what they deserved. I was fit to be tied when one of the talking heads — seeing that all 16 seeds had advanced to the super regionals — somehow had the nerve to mouth something like “Well, the Committee got it totally right.” Wrong! Yes, Minnesota did run into a buzz saw in the form of Alabama pitching. To me, the battle between Osorio and Groenewegen was the best-pitched game from two opposing pitchers that I saw all year. I and others are clearly arguing that the Gophers should have been given a seeding through the super regionals. You don't think home field would have meant a lot in a reasonably seeded bracket? In my view, Minnesota was cheated out of a chance to contend for national glory. We can't even be sure that the Selection Committee wasn't idiotic enough to rank the Big Ten regular season and conference tourney champs well below 17. This is chicanery at its nadir. Or as Cheri Kempf put it about the controversial ending to the fabuous pitching duel: “That game ended on strike 2.”
3) Should all 13 SEC teams have been invited to the national tournament? Probably not, but one could make a case either way. I'm not against an entire league going in per se. The SEC has been the strongest conference for several years. Now that all 13 of its softball programs are striving mightily to be competitive, it might be a rarity whenever an SEC entry does not look to be playoff worthy. Beyond that, the Pac-12 landed 8 of its 9 participants in the tourney, so this issue is not a big deal. A couple of factors push me in the opposite direction, however. On the day after the regular season ended, a McNeese State player posted on Facebook that she had just played her final game for the school. Whether she had forgotten about the playoffs or knew she wouldn't get into those games, I can't say. But I then wondered whether McNeese had somehow not made the cut for the postseason. After that, I made sure USC Upstate had made the field. In both cases, the teams were safely in. Even so, I vowed that nobody would have been able to justify putting SEC bottom dwellers in the field ahead of squads as impressive as McNeese State and USC Upstate. My other concern is that for 2017, I was of the opinion that one and possibly two SEC schools did not belong in the national competition. The less obvious choice for me in that regard was Georgia, though in the case of a team being invited to compete in the national playoffs but not in its own conference tourney (when everyone else was), the optics are admittedly bad. What message is being sent to the players in other conferences? That an SEC team doesn't need to keep up with its conference sisters at all in order to qualify for a run in the postseason? I don't like that one bit. A majority of the schools need to finish first or (maybe) second in their league in order to get in the main draw, while an SEC entry can finish 13th in the conference and needn't worry at all about not being selected? That's kooky talk! The bigger problem was Missouri. The team began the season well, but that did not last long. As the ballclub's own coach admitted, they were finding new ways to lose games on a near daily basis. I rooted hard for Missouri in 2016 for any number of reasons, but the atmosphere has been toxic there for a while. The Tigers were falling apart towards the end of the campaign and they were exactly the caliber of team that should not be given the chance to extend its season. Having said all this, I love watching the SEC Network in large part because that conference truly does play the best brand of ball at the collegiate level. Oh, but others are gaining on them and that is a positive development for the sport.
4) The next time somebody with a microphone starts talking about RPI, listen carefully. They always begin the same way by mentioning that RPI is only one of many tools used by selection committes to rank teams. Now focus. Everything they say after that makes it clear that RPI is considered first among equals and the favored tool of the gods! For example, a big deal was made out of the fact that Baylor was #13 in RPI heading into the 2016 playoffs, yet didn't warrant one of the 16 national seeds. They alone suffered that fate. Do you realize how many ways a slight edge in RPI can be more than offset by a variety of counter measures? And yet the grumbling last year continued after the only two seeded teams that failed to reach the super regionals were Kentucky and Tennessee — both SEC entries. Aren't we to the point where we almost automatically — and wrongly — assume that the stronger the RPI number, the better the team? I'm sure RPI can be a useful measurement if not overvalued. Keep in mind that there is bias and/or shortcuts in every system. I guarantee you that part of what props up RPI exists in the realm of circular logic.
5) The best I saw in 2017:
Lacey Waldrop Smiling Award — Grinning Gator Gourley
Always the happiest person in the ballpark — Alyson Habetz
Prettiest swing — Nikki Udria
Consistent power hitting back to back — Jessie Warren & Alex Powers
Hitting duo up the middle — Delaney Spaulding & Kylee Perez
Fielding duo up the middle — Amber Serrett & Constance Quinn
Bat control — Lindsey Cargill
Hand/eye coordination — Sydney Romero
Clutch and feared hitter — Shay Knighten
Command — Sara Groenewagen
Rise ball — Alexis Osorio
Drop ball — Kaitlin Lee
Curve ball — Danielle O'Toole
Dominance — Kelly Barnhill
Changeup — Delanie Gourley
Fielding pitcher — Danielle O'Toole
Smoothest delivery — Jessica Burroughs
Coolest angle to the plate — Kaylee Carlson
Windup with the most moving parts — Kelsee Sellman
Versatile — Aleshia Ocasio, Bailey Landry, Megan Good
Athletic — Megan Good, Aleshia Ocasio, Bailey Landry
Winner — Paige Parker
Perfect form — Caleigh Clifton
Wildly underrated — Fordham
She was a blur on the bases and her boldness and audacity made me say “Wow”!!! — Morgan Zerkle.
6) Player of the Year:
I correctly guessed that Kelly Barnhill, Meghan Gregg, and Megan Good would be the three finalists. I could convince myself to lobby for any member of that trio with no problem. Barnhill was totally dominant in the circle and Gregg's season was probably even better than Kasey Cooper's 2016 top 3 finish. Still, my vote — if I had one — would be cast for Megan Good. I realize and fully appreciate what Barnhill did, but there ended up being half a dozen or so pitchers with sub 1.00 earned run averages — and Megan Good was one of them. I believe she gave up less than a run per game last year as well. If I'm not mistaken, there is a tacit agreement among conferences to have a league Pitcher of the Year and a league Player of the Year who is not a pitcher. Megan Good was somehow both. I'm assuming that means she was the best hitter not only for JMU, but for the entire Colonial Athletic Association, as well as their most valuable performer in the circle. We've seen some fine hitting pitchers diversify through the collegiate ranks, but nothing in recent memory can match Good's incredible double. She's also tall and extremely athletic, so forget about spouting any nonsense about the quality of her competition. She would dominate anywhere and should be a superstar in NPF if she chooses to go that route. I'd rank her pro upside as high as anybody else's. So there!
7) Last year I was shocked by how much I concurred with the official All-American teams. I was especially pleased to see that players whose numbers had fallen off weren't automatically included from muscle memory or whatever. This time around, I'm still more or less in basic agreement, but there was at least one egregious mistake. The three All-American teams combined feature 55 players. So there is sometimes plenty of room for borderline candidates. As for these listings: 8 shortstops and Delaney Spaulding isn't one of them?! That has to be a clerical error. Check out her numbers and see what I mean. And that doesn't even take into account her superior defense. Without mentioning which players I might want to dump to make room for Spaulding and possibly others, I would suggest that the following softballers deserved consideration for All-American status. Did some or all of them receive that courtesy? I can't say, but here are my five “too little/too late” recommendations:
Maddy Grimm — Kent State
Erika Piancastelli — McNeese State
Elicia D'Orazio — Marshall
Holly McKinnon — USC Upstate
Morgan Flores — Washington
8) I did some cursory research and think I discovered that none of the other conferences have copied that loopy and unbalanced schedule that the SEC operates under. So it appears future postseason announcements will include the kind of thing we've been hearing — “Florida and LSU did not play each other this season” — even though both coaches swear their teams do compete in the same league. I'm starting to suspect that the setup is designed to minimize conference losses.
9) The Bases Loaded concept and implementation proved to be a big success. Showing all games wire to wire and jumping around smartly to keep viewers fully informed was quite the rush. It did become more difficult to chart some of the shifting media coverage, but that was a small price to pay for so much action. An added plus is that ESPN now had an excuse to expand Kayla Braud's role on the telecasts. As predicted here, once Braud loosened up a bit a year or so ago she was destined to be a focal point of the presentation. ( Kayla's list of strengths allows you to check a lot of boxes.) I'll wager Braud is surprised by how much she digs her current gig. I didn't get full introductions to many of the broadcasters, so I don't have a lot to say on that front. I must admit I got a kick out of the Alex Loeb/Megan Willis pairing. They were very cute together and Willis can be entertainingly unpredictable. Sometimes I feel as if Cheri Kempf is trying to sell me something, but she is still the one most likely to directly confront a controversy. In addition to her memorable “that game ended on strike two” line, Kempf patiently and thoroughly took the viewers through the goings-on relative to those infernal obstruction sequences. Nothing against the talented Eric Collins, but I was “ascared” that ESPN was breaking up my dream team consisting of Adam Amin and Amanda Scarborough — particularly in view of how many times Collins identified Scarborough as his partner. I enjoy Eric's work on the NPF games and I think he was even sharper with Amanda. Still, I was delighted when I found out that the dream team would indeed be working selected games after all. Collins and Scarborough have such different temperaments. In what may or may not have been a conscious decision, she countered his double-barreled enthusiasm with small doses of levity. When she was back in the booth with Amin, she cracked everyone up with a clever line at Amin's pretend expense. Jennie Ritter is always thoughtful and informative. Beth Mowins teamed with Michele Smith and Jessica Mendoza and they still call a great game. During the 17-inning thrill ride, the three broadcasters were downright giddy at times. I will say — and this doesn't necessarily refer to any one group — that there were an inordinate number of mistakes made on the telecasts. Not knowing who was at bat was perhaps the most frequent error this time around. Too often the play-by-play announcers gave the audience the wrong number of outs. This is a forum where it's easy to make some miscues. I only bring this up because the flubs were much more in evidence than usual. Holly Rowe, Laura Rutledge, and the other sideline reporters asked open-ended questions that elicited decent answers and less than usual “feelspeak.” Nice job. The only thing on my wish list that wasn't indulged was Danielle Lawrie getting a chance for an encore to her intriguing booth analysis work in last year's playoffs.
10) Short Questions and Comments:
It didn't appear as if adjusting the schedule to limit the number of multi-game days had much of an effect on any aspect of the proceedings, but that could be an uninformed guess on my part. All things being equal, I'm more likely to favor rule changes that reward pitching staffs and/or penalize pitching units featuring one hurler only.
Defensively, the catchers at the college level are sensational on their way to becoming even more so. I love it that there is room for a few lefty catchers. Reagan Dykes is the odd duck batting right and throwing left!
Between the conference tournaments and the national playoffs, have you ever seen so many bunts being popped straight up in the air? Please don't claim you weren't warned. That fundamental skill needs to be mastered by entire rosters if at all possible.
Why are home runs down so significantly? Surely it's more than just power pitching. There are too many of these ebbs and flows from season to season with inadequate insights into why.
Situational hitting is slightly on the upswing (no pun intended). That's progress that ought to be developed much further.
We're always hearing about the USA National Team. Are those roster spots all sewn up or can players lacking connections try out for the squad?
Why don't subs play more? I read something the other day that suggested softball might have the most grueling schedule in collegiate competition. If true, why not give more playing time to heretofore light contributors who might surprise you? At first, I thought this was the case simply because so many head coaches are cautious and conservative, but I now believe it's an unwritten agreement between players and coaches. The best players want to compete in all of the games and somehow make their wishes known. Maybe it's just trendy now not to develop much of a bench.
Should batters be given credit for accumulating piles of walks? Sure, they're being pitched around for a reason. Except for not earning an RBI via the walk if the bases aren't full, a base on balls is often as good as a hit. A player's high on-base percentage is an important offensive contribution.
Players invariably assume they're running as fast as they can from home to first base, but they're not. Best of all: this can be taught.
I never hear talk about stolen base percentage on the broadcasts. In baseball, a rule of thumb is that a player has to successfully swipe 75% of the bags in order to be an actual contributor on offense in that category. I assume something similar exists in softball.
Only one or two pitchers were throwing at 70 miles per hour a year ago, but now pert near everybody does? Trust me — the guns are either not functioning properly now or weren't doing so previously.
11) My “they will be even better in 2017” results: Okay, I missed by a little on Florida State. They are the gold standard in the ACC and have been for many years. I honestly expected them to be in the final matchup vs. Oklahoma (Florida was my second choice). The Seminoles were a bit unlucky in these playoffs and didn't bow out too much earlier than last year's Final Four finish. I was right on the money in predicting bigger things for Ole Miss. They made all kinds of strides forward throughout the season and they're likely to take several more giant steps next year. Technically, the only way for my Oklahoma prediction to come true would be for them to win the championship in two games rather than last season's three games. I believe I had that!
12) College softball has a (hopefully temporary) problem somewhat analogous to an NBA conundrum. Pro basketball coaches are now given to resting their stars on certain nights, which leads to oodles of disappointed fans. Lack of adequate lineup protection is costing some of this sport's most compelling hitters to be issued free passes to first base as a measure designed to pitch around dangerous bats. It's frustrating to arrive at the ballpark and watch as your favorite hitter never takes the bat off her shoulder. How to address this issue and alter the dynamic? I reckon it will need to happen organically and from within. In the meantime, we'll never know if Sahvanna Jaquish would have knocked in 100 runs had coaches allowed their circle dwellers to pitch to her more.
13) I realize I've gone back and forth on the subject of the slap hitters from day one. Well, I'm back and more firmly on their side than ever. The reason for yet another semi change of heart? I was reminded by Ole Miss and Marshall just how much I love team speed in every sport. Seeing how disruptive speed can be is so invigorating! Proud defenses become discombobulated when true quickness is in their neighborhood. Running to a victory via a befuddled defense is way cool. On the other hand, a new trend seems to be pinch-hitting for high-average slappers late in games so that it won't take five or six hits to score one run! Such is the fate of these valuable yet at times undervalued resources.
14) Umpires actually seem to be making a higher percentage of calls correctly these days, but the ones they're missing are ever so crucial! So many games are scoreless after four, five, or six innings. I like a good pitcher's duel as much as the next bozo, but there are two aspects of those tight tilts that bother me. One is that more than a handful of power arms in the circle utterly overwhelm the hitters on the opposing team more often than not. In those instances, the lineups appear diminished and the sport seems unbalanced. My other fear is that the longer two teams remain evenly matched, the more likely an umpire's bad call will decide who wins and who loses. When some runs are scored early in games, there's time to adjust or rise above a blown call. Later in the contest? Not so much.
15) I watched games this season with an eye toward identifying players I regard as underrated in one way or another. In addition to the performers I listed as perhaps worthy of All-American consideration, here are 18 other valuable assets who may or may not be receiving the local, regional, or national attention they deserve:
Justyce McClain — McNeese State
Sydney Canessa — Fordham
Mackenzie Toler — Mississippi State
Julia Hollingsworth — Marshall
Alyssa Derrick — Maine
Rachel Carlson — Maine
Marissa Reynolds — Princeton
Tahlia Snider — FAMU
Stephanie Texeira — FIU
Donna Conrad — Albany
Elizabeth Snow — Albany
Kelsey Riley — Texas Southern
Cassidy Clarke — San Jose State
Shaye Harre — Southern Illinois
Amanda Ulzheimer — Fairfield
Whitney Gillespie — Jacksonville State
Jacquelyn Sertic — North Dakota State
Nicole Schroeder — Arkansas
In addition, I had planned to present an elaborate “compare and contrast” treatment that would have revealed that USC Upstate shortstop Ansley Gilstrap and UCLA left fielder Gabrielle Maurice are both underrated even though they are also highly regarded. Alas, my deadline for this project looms ever nearer and so I need to start wrapping things up. While readers missed a genuine opportunity to laugh, cry, and run the gamut of human emotions, you still have peanut butter! One of Maurice's 2017 numbers gives a false read on her true value to the Bruins over her four-year career. Gilstrap, on the other hand, is only halfway through her tenure with the Spartans and is hitting on all cylinders. Trust me — I would have tied it all together.
16) I consulted with a few doctors several years ago complaining of pain that kept running up and down my left arm. The first two medicos asked me when I had undergone elbow surgery. I replied — truthfully — “never” and they all but accused me of lying to them. Well, the third doctor posed the same question, got the same answer, and then exclaimed: “Then you must be a baseball pitcher.” He then explained to me that my injury had to be the result of either a botched operation or a few thousand too many curve balls. I signed up to undergo cubital tunnel syndrome surgery to prevent the condition from becoming any worse. The procedure basically worked. I did keep dropping my tennis racket on the court for a while, but that subsided soon enough. And I had no trouble at all hefting and guiding my 16-pound bowling ball to its rightful place in the 1-2 pocket. All is forgiven.
The reason for the above sob story is because my left-handed scrawl is incredibly tough to read and write these days. I'm often scrambling around trying to jot down the names of players who are not using batting gloves when they hit. Therefore, I probably make numerous mistakes on that front.
Here are some folks who have no use for batting gloves: Celina Felix, Jade Gortarez, Shelby Hiers, Jordan Roberts, Bailey Hemphill, Reagan Dykes, Sydney Romero, Whitney Jordan, Casey McCrackin, Alyssa Barrera, Kay Kay Fronda, Kelly Martinez, Jessie Scroggins, Danica Mercado, Hannah Flippen, Heather Bowen, Kasey Cooper, Scarlet McSwain, Aloise Tribulet, Braxton Burnside, Kobie Pettis, Annie Aldrete, Randee O'Donnell, Sara Novak, Victoria Williams, Lindsay Mayer, Maddy Grimm, Holly Speers, Jordon Augustus, Aidan Falk, Carsyn Gordon, Cali Harrod, Jessica Mrozek, Loren Krzyko, Caylan Adams, Kat Moore, Sarai Nu, Tristan Edwards, Shelby Miller, Cristy Wagner, Brooke Marquez, Amanda Brashear, Kyla Walker, Lindsay Cargill, Casey Stangel, Leila Chambers, Tiarra Davis, Brandi Needham, Abigail Tolbert, Elizabeth DeShields, Alex Cruz, Jacquelyn Sertic, Haley Meinen, Jamie McGuire, Lauren Lindvall, Chloe Rathburn, and Kirsten Mack. There are plenty more, but I couldn't handle the paperwork. Again, I apologize if you're on this list yet shouldn't be. It's clear we're on schedule to take over the world, but let's have a picnic first. Naked hands only, of course. See you there.
17) I have a hunch these two players will be special talents:
Braxton Burnside — Missouri & Morgan Reed — Notre Dame
Feedback is always welcome here.