Following are another two dozen 24-carat thoughts that entered my tiny brain as I watched the 2016 softball playoffs, up to and including the Women's College World Series. In no particular order:
1) In the final matchup of the 2016 Women's College World Series, Oklahoma took two of three games from Auburn to win the championship. That concluding series, however, was not without its oddities. For example, the Tigers outscored the Sooners 14 to 12. Okay, that sort of thing happens a lot in a short series. Curiously, though, Oklahoma earned all of their runs in the first three innings of that trio of games and zero runs thereafter. In the two contests in which OU prevailed, they jumped out to an early lead and held on for a pair of one-run victories. AU, on the other hand, plated 11 of their 14 runs as they mounted a huge comeback in a “must win” game 2 before and after being held in check by Paige Parker and the superb Sooner defense in games 1 and 3. In tallying all of the above, the two ballclubs were merely being themselves. As the announcers mentioned several times, the Big 12 champions had obliterated their opponents in innings one and two by an insane margin during the regular season and they sustained that dominance throughout the playoffs. By contrast, the SEC tournament winner featured an explosive offense that never seemed out of a game. And so they weren't. The two squads put on a wonderful show that had the look and feel of the country's best and most well-rounded rosters doing battle in exciting, honorable, and classy fashion.
2) From my vantage point: I'll stop whenever I perceive there to be a substantial “natural break” between the last entry I listed and the next one I could have listed:
At-Bat — Kaylee Puailoa's pinch-hit home run that eliminated overall #1 seed Florida.
Catches — Tiffany Howard, Victoria Draper, Constance Quinn.
Very much for real — James Madison University.
Better than advertised — Arizona, Utah, Georgia.
Less than advertised — Oregon (again), Baylor, Florida.
Seeded teams that did not qualify for the super regionals — Kentucky, Tennessee.
Still the best conference, but not by as much as in the past couple of years — SEC.
Busiest and most convoluted “windup dance” in the pitching circle — Megan Betsa.
Most fluid deliveries — Delanie Gourley, Rachael Walters.
Heroic performances — Chelsea Wilkinson shutting down overall #1 seed Florida twice on consecutive days.
I almost always underestimate — LSU.
Unlucky — Rainey Gaffin, Jailyn Ford, Kelly Barnhill.
Game face — Danielle O'Toole.
Impressive and thrilling when they win and when they lose — Missouri.
Most underrated players — Taylor Gadbois, Madi Osias, Erin Gabriel.
Most relaxed player — Alexis Osorio.
Coach least likely to overreact — Kelly Inouye-Perez.
My hunch is that if I saw her again, I'd be more wowed than I am now — Erica Field. I could easily see she is stellar on defense, but I also suspect she can hit. She was hindered by the fact that the “strike ones” against her were awful calls.
Occasionally keeps both teams in the game at the same time — Oh, I'm not going to identify her. She's one of my favorite players. Besides, anyone seeing her in games other than the ones I've viewed might emerge with a different opinion altogether. Somewhat small sample size means I might be dead wrong. In any case, she's a solid performer who may or may not have a skill set in which her positives and negatives to a large degree cancel each other out.
At various junctures in these playoffs, I found myself rooting hard for — Ole Miss, James Madison, Missouri, Georgia, Florida State, Auburn.
3) Worst decison: Pitting Oregon and UCLA against each other so early in the playoffs was unfair and ridiculous. The two top teams in a major conference should be slated to challenge members of other leagues to boost the perception and accomplishments of their conference. That's hard to do when one or the other of your two powers has been prematurely scheduled to lose no matter what.
4) Gloveless wonders: Yes, the use of batting gloves is a matter of personal choice, but I would encourage those who wear them for no particular reason to give going gloveless a fair chance. Eschewing those evil accessories is a little slice of heaven. In my 2015 “state of the sport” presentation entitled “Diamond Appraisal,” I was only able to cite a handful (no pun intended) of players who stepped into the batter's box sans gloves. (That was not intended to be an all-inclusive list and neither is this year's.) 2016, however, is a different story. Here is a partial roll call of gloveless wonders: Tiffany Howard, Kasey Cooper, Whitney Jordan, Taylor Gadbois, Emily Crane, Chloe Rathburn, Kirsten Mack, Victoria Williams, Kenzie McGuire, Hailey Lunderman, Lacey Sumerlin, Alex Hugo, Reagan Dykes, Leona Lafaele, Kimberlee Souza, Erica Field, Morgan Tolle, Nicole Prince, Jessica Mrozek, Hannah Hayes, Jenny Behan, Heather Bowen, Hannah Flippen, Kristen Stewart, Jessica Warren, Cali Harrod, Lauren Lindvall, Hailey Decker, Nikki Udria, Eva Watson, Sierra Lawrence, and Aidan Falk. I apologize if any of the above names are here in error. I tried to identify the gloveless wonders from memory, but my so-called intellect was probably not equal to the task.
Yes, several observant readers have informed me about something I already knew. We who say “no thanks” to the very notion of batting gloves lost one of our former allies this season when Lexi Overstreet switched up and wandered over to the dark side. It's not a big deal. Sure, I cried into my pillow for a night or two, but I eventually regrouped and moved forward. Maybe I'm in partial denial, but I figured there was a decent chance that Overstreet's expanded catching duties might have led to a search for a bit more protection for her hands when batting. Whatever. Anyway, Lexi makes up for it by flashing what Ralph Weekly and I regard as the most beautiful left-handed swing in all of softball. (Kudos to the wag who insisted that it's nearly impossible to believe Ralph and I could both be wrong!)
Among teams whose games I often had access to, Missouri's regular lineup delighted me by featuring four gloveless wonders. One of the many reasons I became a fan of JMU is because their normal starting nine included five hitters devoid of hand aids. And when a player sustained an injury and had to be replaced, a sixth pair of naked hands was called upon. Eventually we'll take over the world!
5) Catchers are doing some rather cool things these days. A few have started throwing from their knees. When mastered, tossing to the bases without standing will result in throws easily beating most runners to the bag and fewer misfires that sail into the outfield. It was also a pleasant surprise to see two left-handed catchers in the WCWS. I can't recall encountering that in any past year. Having a southpaw don the tools of ignorance isn't the same exercise in bad form in softball that it is in baseball, but it remains very much the exception. Some of the backstops who did excellent glovework in 2016 include Aubree Munro, Carlee Wallace, Courtney Syrett, Katie Browne, Erica Field, Lea Wodach, Janelle Lindvall, Lexie Elkins, Erika Piancastelli, Shelby Pacheco, and Abbie Millete.
6) All hail Patty Gasso! What Oklahoma accomplished this past season is remarkable. I checked them out for purposes of filling out my tournament bracket. I was impressed, but also convinced they were a year away from being a serious title contender. The more sure I am, the more wrong I can be! Freshmen occupied the 2,3,4, and 5 spots in the Sooner batting order. The team could make the case it was as adept at hitting, fielding, baserunning, and pitching as any college ballclub. They enjoyed a 30-plus game winning streak. Oklahoma's players are talented, smart, and clutch. Another factor that made the final series so compelling was the bold moves being executed by both coaching staffs — especially regarding pitching choices.
7) Situational hitting remains a huge problem. Don't take my word for it. The subject is something most coaches reference during their mid-game interviews on televised games.
8) In last year's “Diamond Appraisal,” I chided Florida and Auburn for not having competed against each other during the 2015 regular season. As it turns out, that “lack of clash” was only the tip of the iceberg. There are 13 schools in the SEC who field softball teams. You can't do battle with your own team — my beloved Maryland Terrapins notwithstanding (kidding!) — so that leaves a dozen opponents for each SEC squad to face. With certain few exceptions like an in-season tournament game here or a rainout there, you'll end up with a 3-game series versus whichever 8 schools appear on your conference schedule for that season. For example: Georgia did not duke anything out against Arkansas, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Florida; while South Carolina did not skirmish with Florida, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Tennessee. Even though all 13 conference members are decent or better at softball, the setup does skew the regular season standings to some extent. I reckon it's no big deal, but thinking along the lines of “having only 19 losses after going to war with the entire SEC” may need to be curtailed a tad to reflect 36 conference tilts rather than 48. I wonder what the other large leagues do on the schedule front.
9) In my view, slap hitters are in sort of a collective slump. Don't get me wrong. I have great respect and affection for the slappers who continue to enjoy success — all the more so for those who have expanded their slappy ways and now carry arrows representing “versatility” and “flexibility” in their quivers. It seems to me there's been a slight backlash against slappers who are one-dimensional. When they come up in certain clutch situations, coaches, announcers, and “civilian” critics bemoan the fact that even if the slapper gets on board, that will be a stopgap measure only (even in many circumstances where one or more runners are on base). Beyond that, in other words, the team will need a more “normal” hitter to drive the crucial run home. I believe it's also true that many defenses have discovered exactly how to position themselves to thwart small ball. Some slaphappy types appear satisfied if their speed makes the plays at first base close, but that's not good enough. As the great Bruce Lee — a pretty fair athlete — once observed: “Not failure, but low aim, is the crime.” The recent gains made by defenses must be countered by bold and creative slappers. A premier slap hitter is a true artist, but only when operating in the team's best interests.
10) The Player of the Year nominees and winner were fine choices. If I were manipulating the proceedings, however, I'd have made one change. There were sooooo many superb pitchers this season. As historically dominant as some of them may have been, though, you could throw a blanket over the several best — if you could even identify them, that is. In addition, pitchers had won the POY for at least the past five years. For those reasons, I would have substituted Haylie McCleney for Alicia Ocasio and made it a competition among the best offensive players on three powerhouse teams. Sierra Romero has made it to the final trio three years in a row — a tremendous achievement — and she was no less impressive this season than in the other two. Kasey Cooper is a remarkably consistent hitter who had a terrific campaign. McCleney's numbers don't measure up to those posted by Romero and Cooper, but she ignited the Alabama offense and seemed to be involved in nearly all of the Crimson Tide's rallies. All three of my finalists are excellent baserunners and fielders. My vote would have also gone to Romero.
11) Teams on the Rise:
Florida State: The Seminoles were one of only two teams to have five freshmen in one or more lineups this season. The already well-balanced roster will return nearly all of its firepower in 2017. The squad reached the final four in the recently completed postseason, but the prediction here is that they will be in the championship series next year. The team has been the class of the ACC for years and they are absolutely loaded going into next season.
Ole Miss: The Rebels had never been relevant in softball, but that changed in a big way a couple of years ago when the force of nature that is Mike Smith arrived. He comes across as exactly the right person for the job ahead. What an undertaking this must have been originally! The SEC has about half a dozen programs each season which have legitimate national championship aspirations, as well as other highly competitive ballclubs. Anyone looking to join this mix must — among other things — recruit against all those league powers. Although Smith is something of a pitching guru himself, he wisely hired Taryne Mowatt when her services became available; gave her “free reign” with those who work in the circle; and accurately dubbed her a college softball ROCK STAR. In a recent interview, Mowatt noted that her first batch of pitchers at Mississippi included a dizzying array of personalities, backgrounds from various areas of the United States, and several distinct approaches to pitching. Taryne indicated she has no plans to impose a favored pitching style on her staff, preferring instead to build upon the strengths those players already possess — assets that got them recruited in the first place, after all. Madi Osias was as reliable an ace as any in the college ranks in her senior season. She figures to be the toughest graduate to replace, but a high-profile transfer from national champion Oklahoma might be able to fill that slot. The pitchers who remain form a solid nucleus which will develop further under Mowatt's stewardship. The Rebels have team speed in abundance and are aggressive on the base paths. Several young hitters have already been contributing. Freshmen hit in the second, third, and fourth spots in the batting order and the roster includes other promising offensive depth. A power boost would help immensely, but there's no need to chase after home run hitters. Recruits who can drive the ball semi-consistently would do just fine. The defense is stellar, at times spectacular, and one of the best in the SEC. During this season, Ole Miss was the third youngest squad in Division 1. And then there is Hailey Lunderman. See section 23 for more about this emerging superstar.
Oklahoma: Yep, it's true. The national champs are on the rise. Those young stars are only going to get better. The team as constituted is strong in all aspects of the sport. Paige Parker is a weapon all coaches would love to have. This is a special group.
12) Oh, that diabolical fake bunt stance in the batter's box! While not the bane of my existence, this is a topic I do not enjoy broaching. Methinks it might be a subject people take personally, even though I have no idea why that would be the case. This technique has fewer adherents with each passing season, but I reckon that mish-mash will not disappear until the NPF hitters abandon it. Much to my surprise, a handful of them — possibly more — continue to adopt that position at odd intervals. I probably won't get around to doing this, but if I could go through every game of the collegiate playoffs, I might enjoy informing most of the fake bunters something like this: “You're hitting .283 on at-bats where you don't haul out that gimmick and .072 when you do.”
13) While there are still too many batters being hit by pitched balls, it's not a fiasco as it sometimes was last season. I assume that means umpires have made a concerted effort to base such calls on where the batter was when the ball arrived. Pitchers need to be able to work inside without cheap trips to first base being the end result.
14) To the several readers who insisted this essay — or whatever it is — would be entitled “Diamond in the Rough” — you were loud wrong. That handle was never in the running for even a nanosecond.
15) Adam Amin and Amanda Scarborough have formed a wonderful and comprehensive partnership. I was afraid the powers that be were going to split them up for this event. That would be a mistake. We were even treated to Bonus Scarborough on a couple of telecasts when Jessica Mendoza was unavailable. Scarborough knows more about pitching than perhaps anybody else, but I found out when accessing footage from some of her clinics that she knows pert near everything about all aspects of softball, including the mental side of the sport. She was fine subbing for Mendoza, but she's even better when paired with Amin. As always, Beth Mowins and Michele Smith teamed effectively with Mendoza. I actually thought both elite announcing teams were slow to criticize the umpires throughout most of the WCWS, but the experts eventually got riled up in games down the stretch when strikes were being called on Paige Parker pitches that were far, far outside of the strike zone. Scarborough, in particular, registered disappointment that the officiating could go so awry at such a crucial juncture in the competition. When some combination of Mendoza and/or Smith piggybacked on that observation in the tournament's final game, it struck me as too little too late. I believe Danielle Lawrie was given expanded duties in these playoffs and her performance as an analyst was intriguing. She would make a point and then look for opportunities to add to her remarks later by putting them in a more specific context. In addition, she didn't shy away from controversial subjects. I wish I had a transcript so that I could flesh this out a bit more. Like everyone else, I was ecstatic to see Holly Rowe back on duty after a medical leave of absence. She and Laura Rutledge were at the top of their games. I found their contributions to the ongoing field-level discussions to be informative and entertaining to an extreme I have seldom encountered previously. I had been waiting for Kayla Braud to lighten up a little and am happy to report that threshold has been met. Always well-prepared, knowledgeable, and articulate, Braud's charisma had sometimes been hidden by a tendency to come off as overly serious. The tide-turning experience for her (get it?) came during the SEC tournament. She and two colleagues were adding short bursts of analysis from a position in the outfield hundreds of feet from home plate. The interplay between them and the game announcers became playful and appealing in a revelatory way. The guess here is that Braud's compelling personality will be much in evidence going forward and she'll be a star for years to come.
16) Is ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City an actual mecca or just another ballpark? What are the pluses and minuses of having the WCWS there?
17) I was checking out the official All-American teams a few weeks ago and was shocked by how much I agreed with nearly all of the selections. I was especially impressed that stars whose numbers had fallen off were not included almost automatically based on past performance. Even though it's only fair that if you insist a player should be added to the hypothetical team that you must also choose someone to boot off the roster, that can be fudged in this case. Why? Because of all of the at-large selections. As an example: if I believe — as I do — that Taylor Gadbois has earned an All-American designation, you can't assume that I am suggesting that Haylie McCleney, Emily Crane, and Koral Costa — the trio listed as All-American outfielders — have not. In fact, I feel strongly that they are deserving. It doesn't matter which at-large player Gadbois would replace — only that I would be willing to make a one for one at-large swap. There are so many pitchers on the receiving end of these awards that it would be tough to attempt to put them in their “proper” order. In line with my “underrated” picks, I would hope that Madi Osias and Erin Gabriel would be given serious consideration. After all, a full third of All-Americans are pitchers. See section 20 for an explanation of how it was the Division 1 coaches — in absentia — conviced me to view Taylor Gadbois in an illuminating new light.
18) Umpires? I'm neither old school nor space-age. I embrace advanced analytics, but also act on what my eyes and gut tell me. I am particularly adept at railing against conventional wisdom. Here are things I never want to hear from or about umpires or other game officials:
“As long as the strike zone being called is consistent, that's all that matters.” The deuce, you say! While a consistent strike zone is preferable to an inconsistent one, all game officials should strive to enforce the strike zone that is in the rule book. Besides, there are few, if any, consistent strike zones. Indeed, the toughest part for most umpires is establishing one that has any chance of remaining in effect for an entire game.
“She has earned the right to get that call.” Star calls are an abomination. Ball or strike. Safe or out. Call what happens and favor no one.
“You can't make that call at this point in the game.” That kind of thinking is just bosh and nonsense. If there are five seconds left and a foul is committed, call it. A foul is a foul no matter when it happens.
I always admire the hustle and temperaments displayed by the WCWS umpires.
19) In the last edition, I listed 9 or 10 reasons why teams should sacrifice bunt less than they do now. Perhaps the two most important were these:
a. The 21 outs to which each team is entitled in a 7-inning game are valuable assets that should not be surrendered lightly; and
b. By giving up an out voluntarily, teams take themselves out of potential big innings that might lead who knows where.
Not persuaded? In the recently concluded playoffs, didn't a number of routine sacrifice bunts turn into force outs at second base or bunts popped up straight in the air to the catcher or another infielder? In other words, moving that runner over is not close to being automatic. In addition, analytics suggest that having a baserunner at first with nobody out is a better position to be in than having a runner at second with one out. I don't regard that choice as being advanced analytics, as it's functioned as my rule of thumb since forever. The sheer number of sacrifice bunts deployed is practically unfathomable in light of the offensive weapons hitters bring to the plate these days. There are dozens of .400 hitters and hundreds at .350 or above. At the expense of what should be a treasured out, coaches opt to move a runner up one base? Rather than trust one of your .350 or .400 hitters to drive the ball somewhere and perhaps bust the game wide open? Really? In addition, putting pressure on the defense is also a worthy goal. Keep in mind as well that most non-slappers are mediocre bunters.
Yes, such bunts can be more easily justified depending on the control and overall dominance of the opposing pitcher; the score; and the lateness of the inning. I recognize all scenarios where laying the ball down is the way to go. However, that's not what I am referencing here. I see the confusion on coaches' faces all the time, as in: “We're looking so good this inning. So why did I do our opponents a favor by handing them an out?”
Considering how much bunting goes on in collegiate softball, it's ironic how few suicide squeezes are attempted. The main reason, of course, is because runners must stay on the base until the pitcher releases the ball. That combined with how far in the infielders routinely play discourages suicide squeezes. In baseball, any decent bunt will score the runner from third. In softball, even a superior laydown might not bring that run home.
20) Taylor Gadbois ended an incredibly productive career at the University of Missouri with a fabulous senior season. Here is some of what she accomplished:
.410 vs. right-handed pitchers
.444 with 2 outs
.459 when leading off an inning
56 — first in SEC & second nationally
56 steals in 61 attempts — highest percentage nationally
.97 steals per game — second highest nationally
4 steals in one game vs. Ole Miss — most in one game in SEC.
Ended career as active stolen base leader nationally.
It's not so much that she had an excellent season. It's more that she would be super valuable on any team that sacrifice bunts way too much. She can move herself into scoring position pretty much whenever she wants. It's as if coaches who play things overly close to the vest have caused me to see Gadbois through a new lens. For teams that don't seem to properly cherish their outs, TG would be a dandy option as opposed to yet another humdrum sacrifice bunt. A coach who wouldn't savor the prospect of having Taylor Gadbois as his or her leadoff batter can't take “yes” for an answer!
21) I recently overheard two young women who were obviously teammates on a softball team discussing the fact that their ace pitcher refuses to wear a protective mask on the field. One opined that it was a toughness issue, while the other blamed vanity. The pitcher apparently had stated that the mask limited her peripheral vision and was uncomfortable. Are these the types of reasons some college players cite in opting not to use the protection?
22) A closer look at three excellent teams that were not showcased enough during the postseason:
Utah — Hannah Flippen was the Pac 12 Player of the Year. That is a huge honor. Flippen and Anissa Urtez are elite middle infielders. Katie Donovan, Miranda Viramontes, and Hailey Hilburn comprise an effective pitching staff. Shelby Pacheco is a highly regarded catcher. A slew of productive hitters — mostly outfielders — anchor an impressive attack.That group includes Heather Bowen, Kay Kay Fronda, Kristen Stewart, Delilah Pacheco, and Ally Dickman, who has an especially bright future. With a little luck, this ballclub could have finished in the World Series stage of the playoffs.
McNeese State — Erika Piancastelli is the Cowgirls' All-American catcher. Emily Vincent and Jamie Allred combined for a 34-8 record in the circle. Rachel Smith and Jolie Trahan rounded out a strong staff. Vincent, a fine hitter and fielder, also played some first base. Other major contributors to the batting attack were Marisa Taunton, Taylor Goree, Hailey Drew, Morgan Catron, Justyne McClain, and Tori Yanitos. A half dozen Cowgirls had double digit stolen bases. They're fun to watch.
USC Upstate — I've been studying their roster and it's dynamite. Holly McKinnon is the ace in the circle, with Lexi Shubert and Amanda Storch also key components. Abbie Millete is the catcher/field general. In addition, there are lively bats everywhere: Karla Beasley at first base, Megan Obier at second base, future star Ansley Gilstrap at shortstop, Amy Szymanowsky at third base, Kendsey Chappelear in left field, Brittany Case in center field, Ryan Rector in right field, and Kori Wancheck at designated hitter. The team's 9 best runners stole 108 bases. This is one potent offense!
23) Last year I got caught up in Ally Carda's roller coaster ride at the WCWS. In 2016, I came across the best all-around diamond prospect that I have seen in eons. (Yes, I do claim to be an expert in such matters. Ask anyone!) It happened organically and not all at once. I was watching a game on the SEC Network one evening and this thought occurred to me: “Why shouldn't I regard Hailey Lunderman as the best defensive shortstop at the college level right now?” (To be fair, Kelsey Arnold, Amber Serrett, and a few others wouldn't be out of line lobbying for that same exalted title.) A few days later, I was asking “Why shouldn't I think of Lundy as the best bunter in softballdom?” She can disguise her intentions up until the last split second and then bunt the ball on a dime. After that, I dared to wonder whether HBL might be the best slap hitter in all the land. She has tremendous bat control and is lightning quick. Lunderman can already drive the ball and should develop more power as she ages. Hailey has a picture book swing and a rocket arm. She also has the perfect demeanor and temperament for diamond play and is a cerebral athlete who will rarely miscalculate or make a mistake. I assume she's coachable and a supportive teammate as well. Before she transforms into a unique athletic presence, I can imagine Lundy going through a phase where she appears to be a combination of Caitlin Lowe and Andrea Duran — high praise indeed. Outside of all these attributes, HBL is a fairly ordinary ballplayer! Everyone knows Hailey Lunderman is a major talent on her way to being a great player. I just think they don't know how great. I'm happy to be on the record with this slam dunk of a prediction.
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Tim Pollins attended the University of Maryland where he majored in English Literature and Philosophy. His writing has appeared in newspapers across the country, including The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as in magazines and literary journals throughout the world. Baseball was his first love, but he now prefers to watch fast-pitch softball because the sport is so dynamic.
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