Rogers-Munro battery has UF in charge
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Hannah Rogers finally made sure Florida had a perfect start in the championship round of the Women's College World Series.
Well, perfect in every respect but the record book.
Florida's senior ace faced the minimum possible batters through the first six innings in a 5-0 win against Alabama in the opening game of the best-of-three championship series. It's the first time in three appearances in the final round that the Gators have won the first game and a far cry from the most recent attempt, when Rogers allowed nine earned runs and didn't get out of the third inning against Arizona State in 2011. It was also more of the same for a pitcher who has allowed just three earned runs in this season's entire NCAA tournament.
"She's lights out," Florida catcher Aubree Munro said. "She's on a mission, and it's honestly guiding our whole team right now."
In what was billed as the first ever championship round meeting between teams from the rising power that is the SEC, Florida and Alabama flashed back to the days before the conference competed in softball, let alone championships. Florida ace Rogers and Alabama counterpart Jaclyn Traina spent the first four innings paying homage to the low-scoring pitching duels that used to rule the day when the likes of UCLA's Debbie Doom and Lisa Fernandez starred in Oklahoma City.
The Gators eventually broke out the bats. The Crimson Tide left the stadium with their puzzle still unsolved.
"I think she was just in a zone tonight," Alabama All-American Haylie McCleney said. "She was spotting the ball really well. She got ahead of us. That's just Hannah Rogers being Hannah Rogers."
This was the first shutout in the opening game of the championship round since 2009. That's worth mentioning for reasons beyond the momentum it carries or the fact that it was Florida that Washington's Danielle Lawrie blanked with a two-hitter five years ago. It's worth mentioning because, at least by the measure of her postseason performance to this point, Rogers deserves to share a sentence with Lawrie, a two-time national player of the year and one of the best big-game pitchers in the college game's history.
The NCAA active leader in wins, Rogers has always been good. To this point in the tournament, she is considerably better than that.
"I think her stuff is just so much better," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "Her pitches have a lot better break, her location is really sharp. The offspeed pitch is key. We've been talking about that, probably about the three-quarter point in the season. That's been the turning point for her, when she's been able to locate an offspeed pitch that she hasn't had in the three and three-quarters [seasons] of her career before that. To me, that's the turning point. It makes all her other pitches look a little bit harder and have a little bit more explosive bite at the end."
The first four days of the Women's College World Series made it abundantly clear that Rogers and Munro make a good team. Rogers pitches, Munro catches and batters trot back to the dugout in varying degrees of despair. Repeat as needed.
But the sophomore catcher added to her role Monday with what looked for a long time like it might be the only hit either team registered. Most Florida batters worked deep into counts against Traina, largely by design, but Munro jumped on the second pitch she saw in the top of the third inning and drove it into the left-field bleachers for just her third home run in nearly 150 plate appearances this season.
The Gators tacked on two runs in the fifth and two more in the seventh, which certainly made Alabama's task that much more difficult, but the early home run proved to be the winning run.
Munro is one of the Florida hitters who adopted a new timing mechanism after the team's poor offensive showing in the SEC tournament. It's easy to spot on television, the hitter holding her bat out in front of her before the pitch is delivered, almost as if preparing to bunt, and then pulling it back to take a full swing. Against the only pitcher in the World Series field who touches 70 mph with any regularity, the late-season shift in approach paid dividends.
"It can be a timing mechanism to help the rhythm of their hands move," Walton said. "When you're facing someone like Traina who is throwing with a lot of velocity, you've got to focus just on your hands. If you get too caught up in your legs or your shoulders, you're going to get in trouble. So one thing is that kind of takes the mechanic out of the equation and really gets to more timing and a little more balance."
That moment on this stage afforded Munro a chance to be the center of attention, but after a fist bump from Walton as she rounded third and a mob of teammates that awaited her at home plate, she went back to her day job behind the plate. It's there that she quietly plays her role in the Rogers show. Well, not that quietly.
Like a lot of teams, Florida employs a wristband system of pitch calling, with a coach in the dugout calling out a number that corresponds to a pitch. In that respect, Munro isn't responsible for calling the game, but like former UCLA standout Jen Schroeder, with whom Munro has worked, Florida's catcher is responsible for bringing the energy and emotion out of the typically stoic Rogers.
"She's very vocal, and I think that helps me sometimes, too." Rogers said. "She brings a lot of energy, and she's always pumping me up. She's always saying the right things to me to keep me motivated. And if I miss a spot, then she lets me know. She'll kind of walk out halfway and let me know that I missed my spot. I think we just work really hard together. In the bullpens, we just work on locations, too, and hitting good spots. She's always honest with me on every pitch."
There was plenty of emotion from both ends of the battery Monday night.
Rogers has reason to be excited. She isn't just pitching well right now. Everything is going her way. As happened twice in the team's World Series opener Thursday against Baylor, a ball kicked off her foot right to a defender who then had time to make a play. Someone who Walton calls as good a defender as he's had in the circle, she later managed to catch up to a ball rolling away from her, scoop it with her glove and flip it to first base in the same motion.
When McCleney led off the seventh with a single, Rogers started a double play on a ground ball from Kallie Case -- doubling up two of the fastest runners in the country in the process.
It's no wonder her teammates are willing to follow the only senior on the roster who has been in Gainesville for four years.
"She's a leader because of who she is," Munro said. "I mean, all of her accomplishments are amazing, but you wouldn't even know it. She's a four-time All-American and if you talk to her, you wouldn't know it. She's really humble. And I think setting that standard for our team has been a big deal. Nobody is too big for this program. We're a team that really focuses on just grinding, grinding together."
This is the 10th anniversary of the best-of-three championship round. Three times in the past nine seasons, the team that lost the opening game came back to win the title. The most recent was just two years ago, when Alabama came back to win two games in a row against another supposedly unbeatable ace: Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts.
The three singles Alabama managed in the seventh inning will be a starting point. So, too, will the knowledge that they have hit Rogers as recently as late March.
"I think we finished the game fairly strong," McCleney said. "I know we didn't score any runs, but we did get to her. We proved that we can hit her. She didn't no-hit us. She didn't one-hit us."
Still, there was a slight wry smile on McCleney's face as she made those last two observations, all too aware that not getting no-hit is, at best, a Pyrrhic victory with a championship at stake.
They will have to be much better Tuesday night when they try, as shortstop Kaila Hunt said, to force Rogers to work up in the zone where more damage can be done.
They will have to be as good as Rogers was on this night.