- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Women's College World Series is far from unfamiliar with pitching duels. This is the place where UCLA's aptly named Debbie Doom struck out 20 batters in a game and Texas A&M's Shawn Andaya pitched 25 innings in a game. College softball remains a sport controlled from the pitching circle, and never more than at this time of year and in this place.
Yet rarely has it seen a duel between pitchers quite like that which played out between Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts and Alabama's Jackie Traina in the middle innings of Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series. For the first time in World Series history, two starting pitchers in the championship round also hit cleanup for their respective teams.
It was in the latter role that Traina helped give her team the lead. And it was in that same role that Ricketts responded, helping herself and helping spark Oklahoma to a 4-1 win that leaves the Sooners one win from their second championship. To call it a pitching duel sells it short. This was a duel between players who are models of where the sport is going athletically. And Round 1 went to Ricketts.
"She's just a tremendous athlete who wants to compete and wants to win," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of her junior.
Ricketts trailed 1-0 when she came to the plate with a runner on first base in the top of the fifth in large part because of one hit Traina got and one hit the Sooners couldn't get. Oklahoma's ace was her typical dominant self in the circle early. She struck out the side in the first inning, and it wasn't until Kendall Dawson came to the plate as Alabama's fourth batter in the second inning that any Crimson Tide player put a ball in play.
But as the Sooners left runners on base by the bushel against Traina, stranding eight in the first four innings, the Crimson Tide took the lead when Traina led off the bottom of the fourth with a nice piece of hitting, staying with one of Ricketts' changeups and pulling the ball into left field. She came around to score after a hit batter, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly.
Oklahoma left runners on base all week in reaching the championship series, but it appeared the waste might finally come back to haunt the Sooners if Traina could get just nine more outs.
That's when Ricketts, with that runner on first base, ripped a line drive that hit the top of shortstop Kaila Hunt's glove and carried almost to the fence. Had Hunt been another inch or two taller or had the ball been hit a few miles an hour slower, it might have been an out. But with the full force of Ricketts' 6-foot-2 frame behind the ball, the result laid the groundwork for an Oklahoma rally that claimed a 2-1 lead. Ricketts was again involved when the Sooners added two more runs in the top of the sixth to put the game away.
Although curiously ruled an error, she hit a ball that knocked Traina's glove off her hand before it was bobbled on the carom by second baseman Danae Hays. Ricketts then stole second and moved to third on a hit before racing home on an unexpected squeeze play.
Gasso didn't call the steal, a miscommunication that was easy to laugh off after the game, but the athleticism Ricketts showed in the entire sequence offered proof of why the coach wanted Ricketts in the lineup from the moment she recruited her. Some programs prefer their pitchers focus on just that side of the game. Some pitchers prefer it. Neither was true in this instance.
"She changes the game with one swing," Gasso said. "If [pitchers] have that ability and that talent, I like it. I like the idea that Keilani is throwing a great game and that she can come up and win her own game at the plate. She's done that more than a few times."
Ricketts was a star in the circle and at the plate in high school. Hitting runs in the family, after all, as fans in Oklahoma know better than anyone -- older sister Samantha ranks among the Sooners' career leaders in a number of offensive categories. But Keilani was slower to develop as an elite college hitter than as a pitcher. She hit .244 in semi-regular duty as a hitter as a freshman, totaling a modest seven extra-base hits in 86 at-bats.
Those numbers improved last season, a 1.048 OPS making her the team's most valuable run producer once Jessica Shults was knocked out of the lineup by illness in the postseason. But it's only this season that Ricketts blossomed as one of the handful of best offensive players in the game.
"Most of her time was spent being the best pitcher she could be," Gasso said. "So a lot of her time was spent in the bullpen working on mastering her craft, so to speak, and once we felt like she really had that down, we spent more time in the cages. And you could just see her commit to going and getting some extra work done. But if you ever watch her swing batting practice, it doesn't take much from her, because she's so strong, to hit balls out and change the whole dynamic of a game and turn it around in one swing.
"I think she started to recognize how important she could be for her own cause and for our team."
This is still the World Series, and she is still most important to that cause in the circle, where she allowed just five hits and one walk and struck out 12 batters Monday. Alabama, Arizona State, California and Oklahoma entered the World Series as more than merely the top four seeds by designation of the selection committee. They were the only four teams most thought had a chance to win.
By the end of the night Monday, Ricketts had faced the other three and beaten all of them. She needed 63 outs to do it. She got 41 of them by strikeout. She is the best pitcher out there at the moment.
It's just not all she is. Ask someone responsible for calling the pitches against her in scrimmages.
"When you're behind the plate calling pitches, you don't know what to call because she has a great eye and her patience is great," said Oklahoma senior Katie Norris. "She's so strong, so that any ball she puts a bat on has a chance to go out."
They didn't need to go out Monday night to make a difference; they just needed balls hit hard enough to take off gloves.
When Ricketts recorded the final out by getting Hunt to fly out to left field, Traina was waiting on deck. She will get another chance Tuesday night.
"Every single game has been tough," Ricketts said. "We're not going to overlook it. We haven't won that game yet. We know Alabama's going to bounce back and be fighting hard because they don't want their season to end on a loss. We know it's going to be a battle tomorrow."
It helps to have perhaps the nation's best pitcher and most powerful hitter on your side. It really helps when that's the same person.