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Saturday, May 23, 2009
Defense is key for Georgia softball

By Graham Hays

Georgia's offense lived up to the advance billing in rallying past Ohio State twice in the Athens super regional with the kind of big innings teams can string together with a lineup that collectively slugs close to .600 with an on-base percentage better than .400. But it wasn't the most impressive part of the team's repertoire against the Buckeyes.

Not when Alisa Goler times a leap perfectly, grabs a high infield chopper at its peak and throws to first in one smooth motion to beat a speedy runner by half a step.

Not when Megan Wiggins charges a flare to short left and makes a diving, sprawling catch -- one that wasn't necessitated, as is so often the case, by a poor route to the ball.

Not when Kristin Schnake all but throws up barbed wire and sentry posts to keep any ball hit on the ground in about a 45-degree range from getting through the infield.

The Bulldogs are headed to Oklahoma City for the first time because they can hit, but also because even without a pitching ace, they make it difficult for opponents to hit.

Georgia didn't commit an error in two games against Ohio State. It didn't commit an error in three games in the Chapel Hill regional. It's no coincidence that North Carolina and Ohio State, two teams with the kind of raw talent that seemed to make them even matches for Georgia, combined for seven errors in four losses the past two weeks.

The No. 6 seed has committed just 28 errors in more than 340 innings this season, earning a .980 fielding percentage, which leads the nation.

But even that ranking doesn't do this defense complete justice. It's not just leading the nation; it's lapping the field.

Defensive efficiency, as explained by Baseball Prospectus, is "the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs by a team's defense." In approximated form, it's essentially the flip side of batting average on balls in play.

Fielding percentage is a measure of how effectively a team handles the balls it reaches. That's useful, but a sure-handed team with great range is more valuable than a sure-handed team with average range.

Georgia's sure hands come with the range of a camel crossing the desert.

And behind a pitching staff that simply doesn't strike out batters at anything close to a high rate, it's a defense that is phenomenal at getting to balls and turning them into outs.

In the last statistical release from the NCAA, the top 10 in fielding percentage were separated by almost nothing (Georgia led at .979, while Creighton rounded out the top 10 at .975). But consider the defensive efficiency ratings for those same teams.

1. Georgia: .789

2. UCLA: .778

3. Florida: .773

4. Tennessee: .752

5. East Carolina: .754

6. Mississippi State: .703

7. Georgia Tech: .748

8. North Dakota State: .745

9. Baylor: .703

10. Creighton: .769

If you want to get to the World Series with a pitching staff that will arrive in Oklahoma City with fewer combined strikeouts than most of the aces from the other teams, it helps to have hitters like Alisa Goler, Taylor Schlopy, Megan Wiggins and Kristin Schnake. It also helps to have fielders like them.