Sizing up the field in the WCWS
Only twice in Women's College World Series history has a team lost its opening game in the double-elimination format and come back to win the championship. Both instances came before the advent of the best-of-three title series, which adds yet another hurdle for teams that take the long route through the losers bracket.
The lesson here is that Thursday matters, so let's look at the teams that will take the field in Oklahoma City (all times ET).
No. 5 Florida (50-12) vs. No. 13 Baylor (47-14), noon, ESPN
Three Florida players to watch
Lauren Haeger, DP/P: She's more of an all-or-something hitter than an all-or-nothing hitter, but there isn't much middle ground. Haeger enters the World Series with 20 home runs, 32 singles and just five of anything else. (Of the five others hitters in the field with at least 15 home runs, all have at least 12 other extra-base hits). But Haeger is a perfect fit for her lineup, a patient hitter who extend rallies or cleans them up with a bases-clearing home run.
Kelsey Stewart, 2B: Even as a sophomore, Stewart is the complete offensive package. She does everything you would want out of a table setter at the top of the lineup, with a .492 on-base percentage and 34 stolen bases, but she's also second on the team with a .653 slugging percentage. Her power tailed off in SEC play as a freshman, but there was no issue this season -- as she underscored with a home run to break open the super regional clincher.
Hannah Rogers, P: Only one ace in Oklahoma City already has a championship, so a lot of legacies would change with a title. That might be true for Rogers most of all. Were she to add five more wins and a title, she would rank 12th all time in wins and be one of five pitchers in the top 12 with a championship. Perhaps partly because of the absence of eye-popping strikeout totals, she has achieved a lot quietly. A title would be a loud parting statement.
Why Florida can win Thursday and beyond: The Gators are unbeaten in the postseason with Rogers in the circle, and their pitching depth means she enters the World Series less taxed than most of her peers. Facing Florida will only further tire opposing pitchers. Tim Walton's lineup works counts and has ample power, yet it's also a lineup with speed. Throw in a defense that makes few mistakes and Florida's ceiling is as high as that of any team in Oklahoma City.
Three Baylor players to watch
Whitney Canion, P: Her first career start came against Florida, and she was too nervous to even eat breakfast that day. None of these Gators will remember the occasion because they were all in high school -- except for those that were in middle school. Six seasons later, Canion remains one of softball's best and toughest pitchers. Her stamina is obvious, but time has turned her into a true pitcher more than a thrower. Her strikeout rate gets her out of jams.
Kaitlyn Thumann, RF: There is no way to definitely prove the label, but Thumann may be the most overlooked player in the entire field. Her numbers as a leadoff hitter (.500 on-base percentage, .586 slugging percentage, 16 stolen bases) compare favorably with Florida's Stewart, Alabama's Haylie McCleney and Oregon's Courtney Ceo. The hits haven't come as readily in the postseason, but even at less than her best, she still reaches base at a decent clip.
Sarah Smith, 3B: If Thumann is looking to break out of a postseason dry spell, Smith hopes to keep raining hits. An example of how Baylor has developed power throughout its lineup, she has been crushing the ball from the bottom half of the order. She went 9-for-15 in the first two rounds with two doubles and two home runs, almost half as many extra-base hits as the entire team produced in the first two rounds en route to the 2011 World Series.
Why Baylor can win Thursday and beyond: This is one of Baylor's most complete teams, but it starts with Canion. With the exception of two rough starts against Louisiana-Lafayette, responsible for 23 percent of the earned runs she allowed in 43 total appearances, she basically gave the Lady Bears a chance to win every game she pitched. For that reason, and while there is recent proof to the contrary in her 18-inning day in two games against Tulsa in regional play, Baylor's chances depend on winning Thursday and staying out of the losers bracket.
No. 1 Oregon (54-7-1) vs. No. 8 Florida State (55-7), 2:30 p.m., ESPN
Three Oregon players to watch
Courtney Ceo, 3B: Oregon's best asset is that it's the opposite of a one-woman show. But Ceo can still put on one as needed. The senior is the primary catalyst in the top-of-the-order trio that fuels the run production. She is a contact hitter (.492 batting average) who has far too much power (.636 slugging percentage) for defenses to play strictly for the short game. Injured when Oregon made the World Series in 2012, this is her first chance to play on the WCWS stage.
Cheridan Hawkins, P: There are some similarities between Hawkins in 2014 and Alabama's Jaclyn Traina in 2012. Both were heavily used understudies as freshmen on teams that suffered postseason disappointment, Hawkins behind former ace Jessica Moore on a team that was upset in a super regional. Both transitioned seamlessly to the No. 1 role as sophomores and dominated difficult conferences. They don't pitch from the same side or the same way, with Hawkins a lefty who is more a master of spins, but a similar outcome would suit the Ducks just fine.
Nikki Udria, SS: The freshman's play could be telling on two fronts. First, while she is the only starter who doesn't have at least a .500 slugging percentage, she does have a .418 on-base percentage and speed on the bases. With the possible exception of Ceo, Oregon doesn't have one hitter who carries the load. It has nine hitters who all do their parts. Second, defense has been a bugaboo for the Ducks in the past. Extremely gifted with the glove, Udria helped shore up what is now an above-average defense. That must continue in Oklahoma City.
Why Oregon can win Thursday and beyond: The Pac-12 champion checks off every box on the championship shopping list. The top of the order -- Ceo, Alyssa Gillespie and Janie Takeda -- is one of a kind in this field. There isn't a weak link in the rest of the order, either. The Ducks in one six-game stretch this season scored more runs than even Oklahoma scored in a similar stretch a season ago. The defense is solid. Hawkins can hold her own with any pitcher. And many of these players have World Series experience from the 2012 trip.
Three Florida State players to watch
Celeste Gomez, C: The other two players to watch are the faces of the program, but it feels at times like Gomez and fellow senior Courtney Senas are its pulse. Behind the plate, Gomez has an important and longstanding relationship with Lacey Waldrop in the circle. At the plate, her numbers don't jump off the page, but she can draw a walk and has come through in some key moments of late. She drove in five runs in the ACC tournament, and after a quiet regional, her home run in the second game of the super regional opened the floodgates as the Seminoles began their comeback.
Maddie O'Brien, SS: A Mickey Mantle fan, Florida State's redshirt junior shortstop should feel right at home this week in his home state. Plagued by ankle injuries her first three seasons, she broke out as one of the nation's most patient (.568 OBP) and powerful (.964 SLG) hitters this season. And while her range at shortstop may not be what it once was, she is a brilliant defensive shortstop because of her strong arm and understanding of positioning.
Lacey Waldrop, P: Following in the mold of former aces like Florida's Stacey Nelson and California's Jolene Henderson, Waldrop goes about things in her own way in the circle -- which is to say, usually with a grin on her face. Also like Nelson and Henderson, she tends to leave hitters scowling. The junior has a brutally effective drop ball and changes speeds extremely well. And countenance aside, she showed ample mental toughness in the super regional.
Why Florida State can win Thursday and beyond: It has two of the five or six best players in the field, and while this isn't a sport like basketball where that alone carries the day, it helps. What saved Florida State against Michigan, and what must now emerge against seeded teams, is offensive depth. Senas, Tiffani Brown and Kelly Hensley, especially, must make teams pay for pitching around O'Brien. Getting past Oregon will be difficult enough, but should in-state rivals meet in the winners bracket, Waldrop was very effective in two starts this season against Florida.
No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette (49-8-1) vs. No. 14 Kentucky (49-17), 7 p.m., ESPN2
Three Louisiana-Lafayette players to watch
Lexie Elkins, C: There are three players in the World Series with both an .800 slugging percentage and .500 on-base percentage. Many softball fans might come up with Florida State's Maddie O'Brien and Oklahoma's Shelby Pendley, but Elkins would likely stump most. She was quiet when the postseason began, but that didn't last long. In the two games that clinched the regional against Texas and the super regional against Arizona, she hit four home runs.
Christina Hamilton, P: Unable to pitch in 2012 because of a knee injury and little used a season ago behind Jordan Wallace, who returned as a preseason All-American, Hamilton was an afterthought as her fourth season in Lafayette began. Now she's a name fans of the Ragin' Cajuns won't soon forget. Stepping in after Wallace had control issues, the bespectacled redshirt junior thrived. In four consecutive starts against Texas and Arizona the past two weeks, she allowed just 19 hits and five earned runs in 28 innings against two of the nation's most prolific offenses.
Shelbi Redfearn, LF/DP: Lafayette has often been a landing spot for fresh starts, and the Baylor transfer is the latest in a long line of players to make the most of it. She is not quite as patient as Elkins or fellow run producers Natalie Fernandez and Haley Hayden, but she has every reason to swing away at the moment. She has 14 hits and 12 RBIs in the past six games, spanning the conference title game and NCAA tournament regional and super regional.
Why Louisiana-Lafayette can win Thursday and beyond: This isn't a mid-major outfit just happy to be here. Louisiana-Lafayette earned its seed with a tough schedule out of conference, as well as wins against a very good South Alabama team in league play, and handled both Arizona's aura and power with relative ease this past week. It's a young team that sometimes plays defense like it, but the lineup is going to hit. And in 78 innings against Arizona, Baylor, Oklahoma, South Alabama and Texas -- most of which saw her a second time -- Hamilton had a 1.35 ERA.
Three Kentucky players to watch
Emily Gaines, RF: The senior leads Kentucky in on-base percentage (.459) and is one of four starters slugging at least .500. Not bad for someone who had 18 hits in her first three seasons combined. The hits have been hard to come by in the postseason, whether the SEC or NCAA tournament, but it seems rather unwise to count out Gaines, one of two senior starters from the state of Kentucky now part of the first Wildcats team to make the World Series.
Kelsey Nunley, P: It sounds like a knock on her repertoire to say Nunley is better than her stuff, but it's really just a way of saying she is as mentally impressive as any pitcher out there. She is both a pitcher who can hit eight batters, as she did when Mississippi State crowded the plate in the SEC tournament, and a pitcher who can still win that game in nine innings and come back and pitch complete games the next two nights.
Christian Stokes, SS: There are several fantastic defensive shortstops in the World Series field, but there may not be another one who can make quite as many plays as Stokes. Her range and arm are worth the price of admission on their own. The sophomore's offense is still a work in progress, but progress is the key word. She is still a free swinger, but there is more power coming through when she does make contact.
Why Kentucky can win Thursday and beyond: Of the past five schools to make World Series debuts, only Hawaii in 2010 won the first game it played (although Georgia forced an if-necessary game on Sunday after losing its debut in 2009). Kentucky is also the only team in Oklahoma City that isn't hitting at least .300. It isn't even close, at .264 on the season, so it needs to keep getting run production like the 18 runs scored in three games against UCLA. But the Wildcats got to this point, and went 13-11 in the SEC, with those same offensive numbers. The core is there with Lauren Cumbess, Griffin Joiner and Nikki Sagermann, and Gaines and Stokes can flesh out the lineup if they get hot. The Wildcats typically defend well, some gaffes this past week aside, and lost back-to-back games just three times.
No. 2 Alabama (50-11) vs. No. 7 Oklahoma (50-11), 8:30 p.m., ESPN2
Three Alabama players to watch
Haylie McCleney, CF: Arguably the best five-tool player in the game at the moment, she is college softball's Mike Trout. McCleney played at an All-America level as a freshman a season ago, but she completed the package this season by swinging away more and producing a .692 slugging percentage to complement a .567 on-base percentage and 34 stolen bases. As good as she is at the plate, she might be even better chasing down balls in center field.
Jaclyn Traina, P: The experiences of a title in 2012 should help, but it should also help that she enters the World Series in a different manner than that season. She's thrown just 190⅓ innings this season, the fewest of any of the aces (only she and Hannah Rogers are under 200 innings). She doesn't strike out batters like she did back then, partly by design if the Tide are to be believed, but she still hits 70 mph when needed and cuts an imposing figure.
Marisa Runyon, DP: Alabama coach Patrick Murphy is known to play a hunch -- think back to pinch-hitting freshman Jazlyn Lunceford for All-American Brittany Rogers with the bases loaded in a World Series game against Arizona State (Lunceford hit a grand slam). Not all the hunches work out, but he seems to have found one with Runyon. The freshman had just nine hits on the season when the SEC tournament began. She has seven hits since. That includes a pair of home runs, the most recent a clutch shot in the 12-inning super regional thriller against Nebraska.
Why Alabama can win Thursday and beyond: Louisiana-Lafayette and Kentucky won't like to hear it, but the presence of both Oregon and Florida on the other side of the bracket means the winner of this rematch of the 2012 championship series has a clearer path back to that best-of-three final. Alabama's strength is that if it isn't great at one thing -- it won the SEC without leading the league in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, stolen bases, ERA, strikeouts or fewest errors -- it is good in every facet. And the Tide have to think star Kaila Hunt's cool bat is due for some big hits.
Three Oklahoma players to watch
Lauren Chamberlain, 1B: Her junior season has been a stop-and-start struggle, interrupted first by a back injury and then by a partially torn PCL in her knee. And yet she still enters the World Series with more home runs than all but nine players in the history of the sport -- with a full, and hopefully healthy, senior season still to play. She isn't fully healthy at the moment, but opponents still pitch to her at their own risk -- and often to their own regret.
Shelby Pendley, 3B: Oklahoma didn't need a typical performance from Pendley in last year's World Series. The Sooners had plenty of other options when her bat went cold. They need her this season, and she is delivering. She went 11-for-18 with six walks in the first two rounds of the tournament, damage that included four home runs and a picture-perfect squeeze bunt. The Gehrig to Chamberlain's Ruth -- except that Gehrig didn't pull double duty as a pitcher for the Yankees -- she will trail only her teammate among active home run leaders when next season begins.
Kelsey Stevens, P: Although surrounded by two of the game's best hitters, it's difficult to argue anything other than that Stevens is her team's most valuable player this season. The Stanford transfer stepped into impossibly big shoes and got better and better by the week. She's not classically overpowering, but she works all planes, and Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly noted how difficult it was for his hitters to adjust to the movement she had on the ball.
Why Oklahoma can win: A super regional setback against Tennessee -- a shutout, no less -- was another reminder that this isn't last season, but no team enters this season's World Series with more momentum than the Sooners. Chamberlain is healthy enough, and there is sufficient talent throughout the lineup that if one role hitter is down, as Whitney Ellis has been of late, another steps up, as Callie Parsons did in super regional play. All teams talk about playing their best softball at this time of year, but few improve as markedly from start to finish as this one.