Tuesday, May 19, 2009
5 Burning Questions for super regionals
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
What the heck is going on here?
The regional round of the NCAA tournament stretched into Monday, courtesy of a game between Washington and Massachusetts that wouldn't end, but a few bonus minutes on the wrong side of midnight weren't enough to make sense of a wild opening weekend.
Danielle Lawrie turned in the performance of the tournament so far in Washington's 15-inning win over UMass.
When No. 3 Washington finally broke open its epic encounter in Amherst with five runs in the top of the 15th inning, it ensured that the bracket's top six overall seeds would live to play another week. Beyond that, the straight black lines of the bracket seemed to morph into the calligraphy on old maps warning would-be travelers "There Be Dragons."
Oklahoma couldn't manage a single hit for the first eight innings of its game with North Dakota State, falling to the Bison 1-0 and eventually bowing out of the tourney after a 5-3 loss to in-state foe Tulsa. In between, the Sooners put up 21 runs in their sole win against Arkansas.
In March, Northwestern and Tennessee joined Oklahoma for a tournament at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City dubbed "The Preview." As it turned out, the preview part had less to do with the venue than the fact that none of the three participants would make it out of the opening weekend, with Northwestern failing to register a single win. Both the Wildcats and Lady Volunteers also bowed out quickly in regionals, the former after two games in Waco and the latter after losing twice in one day on their home field.
Florida State and DePaul joined Oklahoma, Tennessee and Northwestern, as five seeds wound up exiting stage left. The club was spared a sixth member only after Arizona State rallied to win two games against LSU on Sunday.
So instead of super regionals loaded with matchups pitting familiar foes like Alabama and Tennessee against each other, and familiar narratives like Florida State versus Florida, we tread lightly into uncharted territory with surprise entrants like Jacksonville State and North Dakota State, super regional first-timers like Ohio State and Georgia Tech, and unfamiliar foes like Missouri and UCLA facing off.
Watch your step; the trail markers are starting to fade on the trek to Oklahoma City. Then again, sometimes that's when you stumble across the best vistas.
What is the best super regional?
There have been years when the super regional battle between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds felt a little like watching two combatants locked in a dead sprint to the guillotine.
The drama was enticing, but the future didn't look too bright for the winner.
That won't be the case when No. 9 Arizona visits No. 8 Stanford in a super regional that could provide Florida, should it advance, with one of the toughest Women's College World Series opening games imaginable for a tournament favorite. But for now it's all about Palo Alto, with one of the most powerful lineups in the history of college softball going up against a senior pitcher looking to cement her legacy as an all-time great.
With one more win, Missy Penna will move into a tie for fourth all-time in Pac-10 in victories, eclipsing Katie Burkhart and joining Jennie Finch and Michelle Granger. With two wins and a trip to the World Series, she would stand alone in fourth, behind only Alicia Hollowell, Keira Goerl and Nancy Evans. That's special company. But like an NFL quarterback chasing a Super Bowl ring, it's the nature of pitching in the Pac-10 that World Series appearances play a pivotal role in defining legacies.
So there's no more fitting path for Penna to travel in search of her first trip to Oklahoma City than through Pac-10 rivals Arizona. Peyton Manning went through Tom Brady to get his trip to the biggest stage; Penna gets a chance to go through Mike Candrea's Wildcats.
Arizona might not have been happy about getting dispatched to Louisville for a regional, but the travel time didn't slow the team's offensive assault, as the Wildcats scored 31 runs in their three wins in Louisville. In 58 games this season, the Wildcats have already broken the NCAA single-season home run record with 131 long balls. Stanford didn't quite halt that march in the three games between the teams in the regular season, but it did take two games to win the series for the first time in program history, including a one-hit, 13-strikeout effort from Penna earlier this month.
Which unseeded team has the best chance to reach the World Series?
If you're betting on any unseeded teams to reach Oklahoma City, the reality is you're probably bluffing with a pair of twos. But sometimes the better hand gets folded.
Stanford will need big performances from Missy Penna if the Cardinal hope to oust Arizona.
The only unseeded team with a truly dominant strikeout pitcher, Baylor takes freshman ace Whitney Canion to Ann Arbor to battle Michigan's dynamic duo of Nikki Nemitz and Jordan Taylor. Canion should be well past any first-year nerves at this point. On top of the 44 starts she made in her team's 56 games through the regular season and Big 12 conference tournament, she never left the circle during its three wins in the Waco Regional.
Canion has laudable control for a freshman strikeout pitcher; she's walked 86 batters against 409 strikeouts in 280.1 innings to this point. Michigan only drew three walks in its three games in the Ann Arbor Regional (to be fair, that was perhaps partly due to the fact they were busy collecting 27 hits) and doesn't necessarily have the pure power (.455 slugging percentage) or speed (46 steals) to score a lot of impatient runs.
Coming up with runs against Nemitz and Taylor won't be an easy task in its own right, and the Wolverines are sure to be eager to erase the sting of last season's super regional stumble against Angela Tincher and Virginia Tech, but Canion makes this an interesting matchup.
Among the other four unseeded hopefuls, Missouri might have the deepest team but faces the unenviable task of traveling to Westwood to take on UCLA. Jacksonville State and California also bring top-25 talent to the table but face equally daunting tasks at Alabama and Florida, respectively, in rematches of meetings in last season's NCAA tournament.
That leaves North Dakota State. The good news is there are similarities between super regional foe Arizona State and the regional favorite the Bison vanquished in Oklahoma. Both the Sun Devils and Sooners lead with offense and hope for pitching. The bad news is the defending national champions have an even more potent lineup than the Sooners, and freshman ace Hillary Bach has already shown the mental toughness of a seasoned Sherpa.
What are two battles within the battles worth watching?
Alisa Goler vs. Sam Marder
Neither of the two sluggers will likely have much to do with getting the other out, but that didn't seem to diminish the attraction when Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio squared off.
Like DiMaggio, Georgia's Goler has an uncanny ability to consistently put the ball in play while still hitting for power. The freshman has 28 extra-base hits and just four strikeouts in 148 at-bats this season. And apparently there was no concern that she would have any jitters in her NCAA tournament debut, judging by the five hits she picked up in the Chapel Hill Regional, including one home run.
Ohio State's Marder would love to put the ball in play as often as Goler, if only opponents would give her a chance to hit something that didn't require the kind of extension cue that nobody admits to using when playing pool. The junior catcher has been intentionally walked 16 times this season, including 13 times by the Big Ten coaches who know her best. All told, she has 63 walks, be they intentional, unintentional or merely highly recommended.
Marissa Drewrey vs. Florida's patience
California's Marissa Drewrey put up a lot of numbers in the Tallahassee Regional. Most importantly, of course, were the three wins, but she also threw three complete games and allowed just 14 hits in 21 innings against Mississippi State and Oklahoma State.
But there's one number that stands out. Or rather, one is the number that stands out above all others. As in the number of walks she issued during her time in the circle.
After walking 4.2 batters per seven innings as a freshman and 3.5 per seven innings last season, Drewrey has further cut her free passes to 3.2 per seven innings this season. The fewer the walks, the greater the margin for error she has when hitters do make contact.
The catch is Oklahoma State and Mississippi State, California's opponents in the regionals, combined to walk 274 times this season. Florida enters the super regional with 254 walks all on its own. The Gators wait for hittable pitches and prolong at-bats better than any team out there. In the two games in last season's super regional, Florida batters drew 12 walks against Drewrey and Valerie Arioto. If that happens again, the end result will almost assuredly be the same.
Which team has the most to prove this week?
It should have been a super regional, but anyone who saw Washington and Massachusetts battle into the night Sunday will remember it as a regional that was simply super.
For a good account of Washington's 6-1 win in Sunday's 15-inning elimination game against Massachusetts, check out Matt Vautour's story in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. From would-be home runs that outfielders pulled back into play, to collisions at the plate and inning after inning of strikeouts, the game had just about every kind of play-by-play sequence you'd associate with a Hollywood movie (albeit without the snappy editing to get it down to a more manageable 90 minutes from the five-plus hours it took).
And so saying Washington has something to prove after escaping with a win is in no way a suggestion it struggled against an inferior opponent. On the contrary: It's precisely because of both the intensity and the duration of the encounter (including the 251 pitches Danielle Lawrie threw in her two-game duel with Brandice Balschmiter) that the Huskies are a question mark.
It could be it's a hurdle that, once overcome, leaves the team sprinting in championship stride while teams that came through easier opponents still search for a way from fourth to fifth gear. Or for a group that remains on the road this week rather than making another set of lengthy cross-country flights, it could be one too many obstacles on a winding road to Oklahoma City.
An easier answer to settle on is that nothing that happens on any field this week will top what took place Sunday in Amherst.
From the start of the day's first game, which Massachusetts had to win merely to force the elimination game, what transpired over slightly more than eight hours at the UMass Softball Complex was a final exam of more real-world utility than just about anything the seniors scurrying around that, or any other, campus will find in the pages of a blue book.
The phrase "It's a shame someone has to lose" made more than a few appearances, as the innings on the scoreboard clicked on and on and the clock ticked toward Monday.
The shame would be if nothing ever mattered enough for nights like Sunday to occur.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.