- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Three isn't a crowd in the middle of Oklahoma's lineup. Three Sooners are the reason a record crowd of more than 8,000 people filled ASA Hall of Fame Stadium to the seams for the opening game of the Women's College World Series.
Lauren Chamberlain, Keilani Ricketts and Jessica Shults, in the order in which they usually come to the plate, are hurdles opponents will struggle to clear in the coming days.
Stymied by South Florida ace Sara Nevins for three innings in Thursday's opener, Oklahoma used a tape-measure home run from Chamberlain in the fourth inning to steer clear of calamity and take command in an eventual 5-1 win. It was Oklahoma's first win since 2004 in the event held just up the road from the school's campus in Norman and it keeps the team in the winner's bracket to face top-seeded California on Friday night.
The NCAA leader in home runs this season, Oklahoma has the capability to overpower opponents. It's how the Sooners scored double-digit runs 11 times this season, including 18 runs in a win against DePaul and 19 more in a win against Lehigh in the NCAA tournament. But on this stage, against pitchers like Nevins, a lefty among national leaders in ERA, runs aren't likely to come in bunches for any lineup. The most dangerous thing about the Sooners here isn't their potential to score a lot of runs -- it's the consistency with which the middle of the order can produce some runs.
You might stop Chamberlain, Ricketts and Shults once. You might stop them twice. You might even stop one or two of them all day. But at some point, the odds are that one of them is going to get you.
"It's almost like you're going through the top two-through-four batters on the New York Yankees when they had their run of five straight [championships]," South Florida coach Ken Eriksen said. "Who do you pitch around? Do you walk Chamberlain to get to Ricketts? Do you walk Ricketts to get to Shults? What do you do? ... The margin for error becomes smaller at this level against a great hitting team like that."
At least one of those three has driven in a run in 53 of 59 games this season. They have 63 home runs among them, more than all but 18 other teams in Division I softball. And all of them have more walks than strikeouts, suggesting they aren't going to help opponents by swinging at pitches they can't do anything with.
Nevins held her own the first time through the lineup. In the bottom of the first inning, she retired Chamberlain on a fly ball and struck out Ricketts. An inning later, she caught Shults looking for the third of four strikeouts in the first two innings. The pitch that jammed Chamberlain and induced a high, harmless fly ball was low and hard, but when Nevins tried for the same location with a runner on first base in the bottom of the fourth inning, Chamberlain got her arms extended enough to drive a blast that cut through a stiff wind and landed well beyond the fence in center.
"I was struggling a little bit my first at-bat, just trying to catch up to her speed," Chamberlain said. "I seemed a little jammed on it. But I tried to keep the same approach of just getting a good pitch and putting a good swing on it. Second time around, I didn't want to get cheated."
Chamberlain added a double in the sixth inning that looked as though it might have taken the second baseman's glove with it if the diving defender had reached the ball before it made it through the infield. If the freshman was nervous in her first World Series game, it didn't show. Not that she has ever looked ill at ease with her surroundings. She already owns the school and conference record for single-season home runs and moved into a tie for ninth in NCAA history with No. 28 against South Florida. She hit before conference play, she hit in the Big 12 and she's hitting in the postseason.
It's the same thing Shults saw when Chamberlain, just a sophomore in high school, joined the former player's same travel-ball team, the well-known Worth Firecrackers. Even then, Chamberlain came in, showed off what Shults called a "goofy" personality and went about hitting the daylights out of the ball against older, more experienced pitchers. It's no different as a freshman at Oklahoma.
"I think she's the type of freshman that knows what she wants and isn't going to be denied," Shults said. "She just keeps the same mindset. She doesn't get too up, she doesn't get too down. If something's not going her way, she doesn't let it affect her on the field. I feel like that's one of her main qualities is not letting things get to her. That's how you're going to stay strong the whole season."
The heart of Oklahoma's lineup this season is better than at this time a season ago for a variety of reasons. Ricketts has a year more experience as a hitter -- her sixth inning triple off the wall in left would have cleared the fence on a less windy day. Shults is healthy after missing essentially the entire 2011 postseason with an illness. But it's the addition of Chamberlain that turns what would be a dangerous part of the order into an absolute nightmare for opponents.
More than a decade ago, Oklahoma brought a potent offense to the World Series and walked away with the national championship. The current team brings much more than merely offense to the table -- newly crowned USA Softball Player of the Year Ricketts almost quietly threw a two-hitter with 11 strikeouts in addition to her work at the plate. But this might be the most reliable group in program history.
"If I didn't tell you Lisa Carey, Ashli Barrett [and Andrea Davis], they would strangle me," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of the core of her championship lineup in 2000. "[Chamberlain, Ricketts and Shults] resemble some of the heavy hitters that we've had in the past. I'd say they're very comparable. This group might have a little bit more pop than the other and a little bit more consistency, but very similar."
It's what a record crowd for an opening session came to see Thursday afternoon, and they didn't leave disappointed. Oklahoma may not win it all this year, but to stop the Sooners, some pitcher is going to have to safely navigate the toughest stretch in college softball.
"You've got to face Lauren and then you've got to face Keilani -- I wouldn't want to face either Keilani or Lauren," Shults said. "If I'm a pitcher, I'd be like I've got to bring my best stuff because Lauren's going to take hacks, Keilani's going to take hacks. It's fun hitting behind Lauren and Keliani because when they get hits, I just want to get up there and keep the rally going."