Category archive: Florida Gators
University of Florida outfielder Michelle Moultrie talks about sweeping two elimination games from rival Alabama in the Women's College World Series, leading the WCWS in home runs and the rivalry between the SEC and Pac-10.
Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 7 Florida
Last season: 49-10, lost in Women's College World Series
Who returns: The list of returnees includes three players who slugged better than .700 in full-time duty last season and six who managed on-base percentages of .400 or better. In other words, there is some talent on hand. Kelsey Bruder (1.172 OPS), Megan Bush (1.160 OPS),Tiffany DeFelice (1.063 OPS) and Aja Paculba (1.021) are proven run producers, but sophomore Brittany Schutte might just be the best of the bunch. As a freshman, Schutte's 19 home runs and 1.237 OPS led the Gators, and she was up for the challenge in her first taste of softball in Oklahoma City.
Who departs: Francesca Enea left Gainesville in possession of the all-time and single-season school records in home runs and won't be an easy bat to replace. But less-heralded third baseman Corrie Brooks routinely earned praise from coach Tim Walton as a cornerstone. After starting 48 games as a freshman, shortstop Brittany Walker transferred to Texas A&M.
Who arrives: Kasey Fagan, the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior in high school, could play third base, outfield or designated hitter on a given day, but she will play something. The only one of Florida's four freshmen from out of state, Cheyenne Coyle keeps the California pipeline open and is penciled in at shortstop. Hannah Rogers arrives in the circle and will likely serve as the staff's No. 2 pitcher behind Stephanie Brombacher. Junior-college transfer Ashley Snedeker arrives after two successful seasons at Yavapai College.
Statistically speaking: The 10 Floridians on the rosters are the most since 2006, Walton's first season in Gainesville.
Preseason question: Is any pitcher tougher than Stephanie Brombacher?
Granted, any pitcher would find it nice to have an offense behind her that puts up runs like a certain former Heisman-winning quarterback used to put up touchdowns in Gainesville. And yes, some will suggest Brombacher had a hand, or perhaps a foot, in her own uncomfortable role as one of the central figures in the illegal-pitch controversy that prevailed last postseason.
But those stipulations aside, there is a strong case to be made that Brombacher mixed mental fortitude with wicked movement better than just about anyone last season.
All she had to do last season was replace Stacey Nelson, the smiling Californian who guided the Gators to the championship series in Oklahoma City by allowing a grand total of 25 earned runs in 285.1 innings as a senior in 2009. And as if to make her task that much more interesting, Brombacher then lost her first start last season after going 42-0 in two seasons as Nelson's understudy.
She didn't lose many more, finishing with a 35-8 record and a 2.01 ERA in 226.1 innings. And when all that work seemed to come undone in Florida's opening game of the World Series, a 16-3 loss to UCLA in which Brombacher was called for four illegal pitches and exited in the third inning, she turned around and threw a shutout in an elimination game against Missouri two days later and gave her team a chance to compete against a hot-hitting Georgia team that night.
"I thought she handled herself very well," Walton said. "For any pitcher on that stage, under that microscope and to get that kind of result, I mean, you're for sure going to see a kid just buckle and start crying and just give in. And I don't think she gave in at all."
Part of that comes from, as her coach described it, learning to control what she can control when it comes to concentration in the circle if the calls start coming. But controlling the source of the problem remains a priority.
"We call every illegal pitch in practice," Walton said. "When she's illegal in practice, we call it. When she's legal in practice, we don't call it. I just know this fall has been the best she's been at keeping her foot on the ground. It's been the best that she's been -- she's throwing harder now. She's the one at a disadvantage the way she throws an illegal pitch, so if we can get her more legal, she's going to throw harder, have more movement and probably end up being a better pitcher."
The Gators don't need Brombacher to be Nelson in order to win the championship the latter came so close to clinching. In getting back to the World Series last year, team and pitcher proved they can do just fine with Brombacher being herself.
"I'll be honest with you, I was more proud of that team last year than any team I've coached because we got over a hump," Walton said. "Some teams can get to the World Series two years and you can go, 'Oh, well they had a great pitcher.' We went to the College World Series with another pitcher. I think that's huge."
Florida's 2009 season was a tough act to follow, but as it turns out, Brombacher does tough pretty well.
When Florida and Alabama opened last season atop the polls, the question of the moment was whether the SEC had caught the Pac-10 as the sport's pre-eminent power base.
By the time Washington finished celebrating its first national championship on the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, it was clear the softball arms race -- ironically in one of the kindest seasons to batters in recent memory -- was nowhere near such a neat and tidy resolution.
The SEC and others are moving ahead full steam, but they're chasing a moving target.
Washington opens this season poised to defend its title and ranked No. 1. The first Pac-10 team other than Arizona or UCLA to win a national championship when it did so in 2002, Cal appears back in position to challenge for a spot in the World Series and possibly even a second title. Stanford keeps adding talent and can make a strong case as the best team not to reach the World Series in the past five years. A season after making do without Katie Burkhart well enough to reach Oklahoma City, Arizona State must repeat the process without Katie Cochran. But the Sun Devils have more than enough talent to avoid falling off the pace set by their 2008 title team.
And those are just the contenders that didn't win 19 of the first 24 NCAA championships, loot divvied up between UCLA (10 titles and one vacated title) and Arizona (eight titles).
University of Washington Athletic Department If Washington makes it back to the WCWS, Danielle Lawrie will be a threat.
Is the rest of the country catching up to Arizona and UCLA? With as much talent as there is this season in Tucson and Westwood, it's undoubtedly so. It's just that to a greater degree than ever before, despite the Pac-10's long history of large World Series contingents, the rest of the country includes places like Tempe, Ariz.; Berkeley and Palo Alto, Calif.; and Seattle.
2. Is Washington the team to beat?
Even if you don't subscribe to the theory that the champions deserve that label until it's taken from them, the Huskies qualify strictly on the merits of the here and now.
That isn't to say coach Heather Tarr's team is unquestionably better than last season's version. It lost a huge tangible piece in All-American second baseman Ashley Charters and perhaps an equally noteworthy intangible piece in catcher Alicia Blake, Danielle Lawrie's catcher for three seasons. But the pieces the Huskies return -- and there are a lot -- should be better. Sophomores Kimi Pohlman and Niki Williams have a year of success to build on, while junior third baseman Morgan Stuart has a year of work at the hot corner to build on after shifting from shortstop. And senior Jennifer Salling, whose midseason arrival necessitated Stuart's shift, won't have to jump in midstream.
And there is, of course, Lawrie. After pitching through a stress fracture in her pitching arm for much of last season, she's healthy and without peer in the college ranks now that former Florida ace Stacey Nelson has moved on. Last year, Lawrie pitched through two road trips in regionals and super regionals, plus a long elimination day against Georgia in the World Series; in so doing, she proved she can overwhelm opponents when she's at her best and blink past when she's not.
3. Which player could alter the college softball landscape?
Matt Dunaway/LSU Athletics LSU's Rachele Fico has the potential to set herself apart from the crowd.
How's that for a buildup? But when you threw perfect games by the dozens in high school in Connecticut, helped a Florida travel ball team upset the softball establishment in knocking off the California powers to win the prestigious ASA Gold title, pitched against Team USA after your junior year in high school and earned space on "SportsCenter" and in The New York Times, lofty expectations get packed for school right along with the notebooks and clothes.
LSU freshman Rachele Fico is just one of several highly touted freshman pitchers dotting big-time rosters around the country, but she has the potential to set herself apart from the crowd.
All the accomplishments and experiences predating her arrival in Baton Rouge help, as does her place in a program with perhaps the richest softball tradition in the SEC but that, like the rest of the conference, is still looking for its first national championship. It also doesn't hurt that Fico has both the ability to blow pitches past batters and a sense of spin and control beyond her 18 years.
She even sounds like a seasoned vet in passing credit to her defense -- a defense that isn't likely to get a lot of work on days when she's on top of her game.
"I'm extremely comfortable with my team; I know I have a great defense behind me," Fico said a few days before her debut. "So I'm not scared to throw pitches and I know if they do get put into play my teammates are going to make the plays behind me."
The sport is also evolving to give freshman pitchers a greater shot at success. While Connecticut high schoolers still throw from 40 feet, Fico's experience in travel ball and pitching for the elite Stratford Brakettes amateur team (alongside players like former LSU catcher Killian Roessner) means pitching from a consistent 43 feet in college is actually something of a relief, rather than a challenge to overcome.
"My biggest adjustment to 43 feet with pitching was probably my changeup," Fico said. "When I switched to 43 feet, I had to work on getting the ball to get there a little bit more. But it's really nice to have those extra three feet because it gives us so much time to make the ball spin and get a little bit more break on it."
4. Which team could make a surprise trip to Oklahoma City?
There is almost always at least one team that sneaks up on fans and pundits. Two seasons ago, Louisiana-Lafayette went from No. 20 in the preseason Top 25 to the World Series. Last season Missouri and Georgia rose from Nos. 23 and 19, respectively, to Oklahoma City.
Now it's about time No. 19 Florida State ends its World Series hiatus.
The Seminoles will need more consistent run production this season, no small task considering they lost their best hitter, Kaleigh Rafter. A team that slugged an anemic .366 in 2009 has some work to do, but senior outfielder Carly Wynn (.530 slugging, .409 on-base percentage) is a good place to begin building a lineup. The Seminoles should once again get a boost from the transfer market -- like they did with Rafter -- with the arrivals of Jen Lapicki from Tennessee and Tory Haddad from Ohio State, patient hitters with the ability to add to the team's extra-base hit totals.
The good news is Florida State doesn't need to set scoring records as long as Sarah Hamilton and Terese Gober are splitting innings in the circle. The two combined to go 44-16 with 519 strikeouts and just 87 walks in 421 1/3 innings, reminiscent in some ways of Northwestern's duo of Eileen Canney and Courtnay Foster in that program's breakout 2006 campaign.
5. Who are three players who deserve a brighter spotlight?
Carly Normandin, OF, Massachusetts The Minutewomen might have been one of the best teams in the country last season. They just had the misfortune to play 22 innings against Danielle Lawrie on the final day of regionals. Ace Brandice Balschmiter is gone, which will make a repeat performance difficult, but Normandin was one of the toughest omissions from this season's ESPN.com All-America team. Her bat is streaky, but the end product (.727 slugging, .457 on-base percentage) is indisputably great. And what never wavers is her defense. It's tough to make declarative defensive statements without more widely available video and statistics, but I know this: I've never seen a better outfielder.
Kylie Reynolds, P, Kent State All she's done for the past three years is strike out batter and win games. A season ago, she finished sixth nationally in strikeouts per seven innings -- and it was the first season in which she didn't win MAC Pitcher of the Year honors (Ball State's Elizabeth Milian ended her run). In 236 innings, Reynolds struck out 345 batters and limited opponents to a .190 batting average. And Reynolds isn't just a MAC phenomenon. Last season alone, she struck out 11 in a loss at Arizona State, didn't allow an earned run in 7 2/3 innings in a loss against Iowa and shut out a good Texas State team for an upset win.
Melissa Roth, C, Louisville The Big East may not be the Pac-10 or SEC -- it may not even be the Big Ten or ACC -- but if you hit .444 with an .870 slugging percentage and .566 on-base percentage, you can get it done in any uniform. That includes the Team USA uniform Roth wore in the Pan American Games. Her only problem is she's caught, pun intended, at what's surprisingly one of the deepest positions when it comes to elite hitters, joining the likes of Sam Marder, Chelsea Bramlett and Stacie Chambers in fighting for recognition behind the plate.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
No. 3 Arizona
There may not be words to describe just how good Arizona's offense was last season. But there are numbers -- lots and lots of numbers.
Luke Adams/Arizona AthleticsBrittany Lastrapes keys Arizona's offense.
If you want to take the scenic route, consider the Wildcats reached the World Series despite finishing ranked No. 125 in team ERA, behind Quinnipiac, Saint Mary's, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Robert Morris, for the school of Nancy Evans, Jennie Finch, Alicia Hollowell and so many more aces of distinction.
As for the more direct approach, coach Mike Candrea's team averaged better than one run per game more than UCLA or Arizona State in conference play -- UCLA ranked third nationally in slugging percentage and ninth in runs per game; Arizona State ranked eighth and second, respectively.
Arizona operated in a different hitting stratosphere than the rest of the country for much of 2009.
Good thing the team from Tucson graduated the players who ranked third and seventh in OPS from that lineup (Jenae Leles and Sam Banister, respectively) or it might be unfair.
In truth, both players are significant subtractions from the lineup, particularly Leles, but the wealth of hitting talent that remains is remarkable. Stacie Chambers hit more home runs (31) and drove in more runs (96) than just about anybody in Arizona not named Mark Reynolds … and Chambers is almost without a doubt not the most valuable hitter on the team as long as Brittany Lastrapes is around.
So what happened in Oklahoma City, where the Wildcats went two-and-barbeque at the World Series and managed just seven hits in two shutout losses? Bad luck and good pitching are generally underrated explanations with that small a sample size, but it's easy to wonder if a team that spent all season feeling like no amount of runs were enough just hit a wall after falling behind in the first inning of each game.
If freshman pitcher Kenzie Fowler eliminates that, allowing Sarah Akamine to fill a No. 2 role that she's quietly grown entirely capable of filling, watch out. I can't help wondering if Fowler might be Candrea's version of Maya Moore, who joined a Connecticut team ready to make a leap with Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery.
No. 4 Florida
Florida would not be the first team to graduate an ace and still manage a trip to the World Series. Granted, the list is a lot longer on the other side, but reaching the WCWS isn't unprecedented.
After winning a national championship in 2006, Arizona turned things over to Taryne Mowatt and repeated. Arizona State couldn't defend its championship last season, but it did make a return trip to Oklahoma City, albeit with a bit of an assist from North Dakota State when the Bison stunned Oklahoma in regionals only to run out of gas against the Sun Devils the next week. Even within the SEC, Alabama bounced back from losing Stephanie VanBrakle after the 2006 season to push Washington to the limit in a thrilling super regional on the road in Seattle.
The point is there is life after Stacey Nelson, particularly if you return the core of a lineup that ranked fourth in the NCAA in slugging percentage, four regulars who got on base more than 40 percent of the time and a defense that was more than steady, if not always spectacular.
And if you believe Stephanie Brombacher is the real deal. Put me in that category.
Brombacher is the biggest reason the 2007 Arizona team may be the most apt comparison for the Gators. Like Arizona's Taryne Mowatt, Brombacher put up outstanding numbers as the team's No. 2 pitcher the season before she took over (in Mowatt's case, behind Alicia Hollowell). And like Mowatt, Brombacher was an afterthought in Oklahoma City, although she at least got the benefit of throwing four innings of relief for the Gators. The junior's undefeated record through her first two seasons shouldn't be dismissed, but the numbers that matter more are how she pitched through those wins -- she's not going to get herself in trouble with a lot of walks.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Seconds after her college career came to an abrupt and unsatisfying end with a loss to Washington in the Women's College World Series championship series Tuesday, Nelson, along with teammate Francesca Enea, comforted Ali Gardiner, the senior who had struck out to end the game.
AP PhotoEnjoy seeing Stacey Nelson's No. 42 -- Tim Walton said it won't be worn by another under his watch.
Pitching is an ego business, especially in big-time college softball, in which the ace pitches almost every game and her name is the only one that gets a loss attached to it in the box score. But Nelson, always quirky, never seemed interested in staring down hitters, pouting about strike zones or generally playing the diva.
She just pitched. And won. A lot.
Before this season, Tim Walton recounted how, when he first started working with Nelson (who had been recruited before he took the job in Gainesville), he immediately knew she was a tremendous, fun-loving person. He didn't know whether she was a great pitcher. Four seasons later, he has no doubts on either count.
"Obviously, No. 42 won't be back for us next year," Walton said. "We will feel that because not only is she a great pitcher, but she is also one of the most outstanding people you will ever meet. I already told her this, but there will not be the No. 42 worn in the sport of softball as long as I'm the coach there. She just meant that much to our program, and we would have not been here in the last two years without this young lady."
Among the top 10 in wins in NCAA history, Nelson deserves a place in the game's lore. Unfortunately, Florida's exits short of a championship the past two seasons place her in an elite group of players who weren't able to cap All-American careers with success in Oklahoma City -- alongside aces such as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott and Angela Tincher, of recent vintage.
But as with each of those pitchers, the sport is better for having had Nelson. And true to form, she seemed to appreciate that she was better for it, regardless of the past two days.
"Losing sucks, especially on this stage," Nelson said. "It's the things that you have learned playing the game that you really take into the rest of your life. And I am not going to remember -- well, I will remember that we came in second, but what I am going to remember are the 20 great girls that I had on my team, playing with them for four years, building the best relationships I've ever had, playing for a coach like Tim Walton.
"There's a lot of pain that comes with this loss, but I'm always going to remember my time at Florida as the best time of my life."
Now, like Texas after Osterman, Tennessee after Abbott and Virginia Tech after Tincher, Florida must move on. Unlike each of those programs, it will be a mild surprise if Walton's team isn't back here next season, even if it has to suffer through a season with double-digit losses like everyone else. There is a clear plan of succession in the circle, where Stephanie Brombacher will enter her junior season undefeated as a college pitcher.
More importantly, there is a coach who has stocked his roster with more talent than a lineup card can hold. Gardiner, Kim Waleszonia and all of the seniors will be missed for what they brought to the team. But from a coldly analytical perspective, the Gators have replacements ready at every position.
If Brombacher is even good -- and there's reason to think she can be great -- she should have all the support she needs from a lineup that will include Enea, Aja Paculba, Kelsey Bruder and Megan Bush, in addition to expanded roles for players such as Alicia Sisco and Michelle Moultrie.
Walton likes to keep his program insulated from the media and the outside world, but he's going to have to continue putting up with prying eyes. As long as he's around, Florida isn't a program that's going to slip off any radars.
• The whole debate about the SEC and the Pac-10 strikes me as a little pointless. Clearly, the Pac-10 has more championships and isn't going to exit the stage in Oklahoma City anytime soon. And anyone suggesting the SEC has surpassed it is out of their minds. But at the same time, anyone who suggests that just because the SEC hasn't won a national championship, it's somehow inferior is almost equally out of their minds.
Florida missed out on the SEC's best chance to date to add a title to its résumé. But the most basic truth is the SEC and Pac-10 are two really good leagues. As softball fans, it seems like savoring that ought to have more value than worrying about which one is best.
The only "best" that really matters is the team title Washington earned Tuesday.
But the Gators also seemed more puzzled at their own performance than fearful of their fate.
Both Nelson and Walton used the word "uncharacteristic" to describe a performance marked by missteps across the board -- hitting, fielding and pitching -- and which doubled the total number of runs the Gators had lost by in their only three losses of the season entering Monday's game.
Nelson wasn't sharp, although it didn't help her cause that the strike zone tended to favor outside pitches, especially to right-handed batters. That's not to say the Gators were unduly burdened -- the strike zone is always an organic thing -- but Nelson is at her best when she's able to get in on the hands of batters. And it's tougher to get those swings when there's no need for batters to protect inside.
Aside from one oblique reference, Walton didn't make an issue of the zone or use it as an excuse, but it also seemed to get to the Gators at the plate. Two of the team's first three batters struck out looking, and only leadoff hitter Aja Paculba even recorded a swing in the first frame, striking out on a rise ball from Lawrie after taking two strikes. In all, five Gators struck out looking in the game.
One of Florida's greatest offensive strengths is its plate discipline. Walton said earlier this week that his staff didn't even worry about batting averages this season (although with a .324 team average, there's plenty to focus on), looking more at on-base percentage and the sheer volume of run-scoring opportunities the team could produce. But where Washington batters have more walks than strikeouts in the World Series, reversing a season-long trend for them, Florida batters have more than twice as many strikeouts as walks, also a reversal of their norm.
Don't be too patient, but don't be impatient. It's a balancing task worthy of a high-wire act, but it's one that made this Gators team such an offensive juggernaut all season.
"We just have to maintain our discipline, do the things that got us here," Walton said. "We typically will walk as many times as we'll strike out in a game, and we've just got to be able to do a good job of being selective and making adjustments with the game that's being called."
At the same time, Walton suggested, whether as a decoy or not, that he might be looking to change his approach in at least some situations against Lawrie, who has now thrown 16 shutout innings against the Gators this season. Florida has nearly twice as many home runs as sacrifice bunts, but he may be looking for a little of both to avoid falling in another hole Tuesday.
"Overall, just put ourselves in a better position to play -- you know, play a different style of game," Walton said of possible adjustments. "We're going to have to come out and try to play a little small ball tomorrow and get some runners going."
That could mean moving catcher Kristina Hilberth, one of the lineup's better small-ball options, back to the No. 2 spot she occupied at various times this season, including the super regional against California and the World Series opener against Arizona. It could also mean a look for outfielder Michelle Moultrie, second on the team in stolen bases and a regular in the lineup when center fielder Kim Waleszonia was out with an injury. Pinch hitting Monday, Moultrie had the team's only clean hit of the night (the other coming when Washington's Morgan Stuart and Jenn Salling collided on a grounder).
Responding to adversity is the only thing the Gators haven't proven they can do this season, because their own success hasn't offered many opportunities for practice. A walk-off grand slam Sunday was a start, but even then, the Gators had the cushion of another game if they lost. Monday's meltdown aside, they've shown they can do everything else a team has to do on the field to win a championship. In trying to get back to those strengths, they'll prove whether or not they really are a complete team.
"Give Washington credit," Walton said. "I thought they did a great job of capitalizing on our mistakes. We just didn't play very well at all."
Nelson can be overpowering by any abstract measure, but she's truly dominant because of her ability to make hitters beat themselves. She confounds them with an array of pitches and leaves them guessing at which they can hit and which will result in little more than weak pop outs or groundouts.
It's no coincidence that both Arizona's Mike Candrea and Michigan's Carol Hutchins talked after losses about their respective teams' inability to adjust to Nelson and her corresponding ability to counter any eventual adjustments, and that Alabama was the only team that has made her look mortal to this point. The Crimson Tide had faced her four times this season and numerous times during the past few seasons. Without a lot of looks and a lot of All-Americans, the odds of making Nelson sweat are lottery-long.
Lawrie is the international veteran and the more traditional postseason workhorse, bringing a slightly higher strikeout rate (10.4 per seven innings, compared to Nelson's still-elite 8.9 per seven innings) and a slightly higher risk-reward element (0.85 extra-base hits per seven innings, compared to Nelson's 0.56 extra-base hits per seven innings).
But if the two aces are equals in the results they produce in the circle, they don't enter Monday's game on equal footing.
Look at the number of pitches each has thrown in the NCAA tournament.
Super regional: 212
Super regional: 170
At this time of year, the fact that a softball pitcher's motion is easier on the arm than a baseball pitcher's motion tends to wildly morph into the myth that softball pitchers can throw all day and still have the arm and legs to play some ultimate Frisbee at night.
One look at all the ice on Lawrie's arm after a game ought to dispel the notion that 100 pitches take no toll on the arm, and yet that's only a weakened branch compared to the tree trunk of a pitcher's legs. Florida coach Tim Walton, a former college baseball pitcher, touched on this topic before the season, talking about the importance of Nelson's improved conditioning through her years in Gainesville to her success.
"To say the body doesn't get sore when it throws 120 pitches in a game is absolutely crazy," Walton said in late January. "It's easier on the arm, but it's not easier on the body. The body still takes a toll throwing 120 pitches, and then having to turn around and possibly throw in the next game of a doubleheader. So I give our girls -- I give every girl, but I give our pitchers a lot of credit for having the ability to be able to separate themselves from the game and the competition and really [continue] competing at a high level. And knowing the difference between being sore and being hurt.
"That's the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete is they play through pain."
Florida's dominance and the presence of Stephanie Brombacher eased Nelson's workload this season, leaving her fresh now, but Walton might as well have included some stock tips, given how precisely his comments forecasted the challenge that now faces his foe. Consider that included within Lawrie's pitch count is a pair of doubleheaders: 285 pitches in two games against Georgia on Sunday and a staggering 395 pitches in two games against Massachusetts on the final day of the Amherst Regional.
That's the storyline of this championship series, whether Lawrie talks about it or not. (And never one to publicly linger too long on the philosophical side of things, she won't dwell on any possible negatives.)
It's not so much Lawrie's taking on Nelson as Lawrie's taking on time and physiology.
Lawrie is not quite the dominant pitcher she was in February. A few more pitches per game hang in the zone (two home runs in 30.2 innings here and six in 78.2 innings in the postseason, compared to six in 260 regular-season innings). Her counts go a little deeper, and she loses the additional hitter to a walk perhaps once every game or two. But even in her production at the plate, where she's hit three home runs and driven in 13 runs in the postseason, or stepping up with a vintage effort in a tight game against Arizona State, you see a pitcher doing what she can to plug the leaks in precision.
It's the mental toughness that Washington coach Heather Tarr identified as far back as February as the biggest evolution in Lawrie's game after a year with the Canadian Olympic team.
"I think taking a year off and spending it with older players and with the national team and international softball, it helped her just be more mature, mentally stronger," Tarr said in February at the Campbell-Cartier Classic in San Diego. "Physically, I think she's pretty much what she is; she's going to be what Danielle is going to be. But I think mentally, it kind of helped her take a step back and recognize, what does she really want to do in the game?"
After pitching 22 innings in the two games against Massachusetts on May 17, a little after 1 a.m., Lawrie offered this take on the specter of fatigue.
"You've got to look at what you've done to get there," she said. "You've got to look at all the money you've put in the bank. And you're not done spending."
Matched up against her lone equal in Nelson, she'll have to go for broke.
3 p.m. ET | ESPN
Pitching: Stacey Nelson was arguably the best pitcher in the country over the course of the regular season and first two weeks of the NCAA tournament (and it was strictly a two-pitcher argument between Nelson and Danielle Lawrie). So to say she's taken her game to another level at the Women's College World Series suggests exactly how difficult a task it will be for Alabama to win once, let alone twice, Sunday. Nelson has allowed just three hits in two starts in Oklahoma City, striking out 21 and walking just three without hitting a batter.
Things have not gone as smoothly for Kelsi Dunne, who presumably will get the start in the game Alabama needs to force a second game Sunday. But if Dunne hasn't been perfect, walking six and hitting one against Michigan in the opener and serving up a long home run to Arizona State's Katie Crabbe on Saturday, her imperfection has been revealing. A pitcher who sometimes struggles to push through squeezed strike zones, perceived or real, she took everything in stride against the Sun Devils and retired nine of the final 10 batters she faced after the Crimson Tide reclaimed the lead.
Florida handed Dunne one her worst losses of the season when the teams met in late March, piling up nine runs while managing to leave 11 runners on base. But she also bounced back the next day to beat the Gators, striking out 13. Dunne can occasionally hand out too many walks, and Florida is a team that loves to set the table for its power by taking free passes, so the size of the strike zone will be a key to the action.
Hitting: With a lineup that has power stretching from leadoff hitter Aja Paculba all the way down to Kim Waleszonia in the No. 9 hole, Florida has enough depth to pile up runs in a hurry. As it has proved in the World Series, it also has the depth to erase a lot of lean innings with one, quick swing of the bat. A lot of Gators have had success against the Crimson Tide -- they've scored 31 runs in four games against them -- but Kelsey Bruder, Aja Paculba and Francesca Enea have enjoyed particular success. There's not a long history of success against Nelson for Alabama to build on, but Charlotte Morgan's home run in the SEC tournament was the first Nelson allowed all season. Lauren Parker has also managed to pick up some hits against Florida's ace over the past two seasons.
Fielding: Nelson's dominance hasn't forced the Gators to work hard in the field -- half of the outs needed have come by way of strikeout. Alabama was uncharacteristically porous in its loss here against Michigan. It rebounded nicely Saturday but did commit four errors in four games this season against Florida.
Player to watch: Jazlyn Lunceford
The hero of Alabama's win Saturday against Arizona State, when her pinch hit grand slam gave the Crimson Tide a lead they wouldn't relinquish, Lunceford may get a chance at a few more at-bats. The positive vibes of the grand slam don't hurt, but Lunceford also has a history against Nelson. In Alabama's lone win against the Gators, the freshman had two hits, including a triple, and two RBIs.
Behind a one-hitter from Stacey Nelson and Bush's one big hit -- a solo home run deep into the left-field bleachers in the sixth inning -- Florida beat Michigan 1-0.
AP PhotoMegan Bush (No. 12) drove home the only run in Florida's win over Michigan on Friday night.
For the second Women's College World Series game in a row (and really the fourth game in a row, including a super regional against California), a Gators offense that averages nearly 6.6 runs per game produced considerably less than that but just enough to back up Nelson's brilliance.
And that's sort of the point. Florida's lineup is one giant fail-safe mechanism.
When all the parts are working, it's a juggernaut. When some parts malfunction, or get taken out of play by great pitchers such as Jordan Taylor and Nikki Nemitz, there are too many redundancies built into the system to ever allow for catastrophic hitting failure.
Consider Bush, the sophomore shortstop who was hitting eighth in the lineup when I first got a glimpse of this year's Gators at a tournament near Palm Springs in February (all she did from that spot was hit a three-run home run off an elite pitcher, Fresno State's Morgan Melloh, to turn a potentially tense game into a run-rule win). Coming off a big home run in Thursday's win against Arizona, Bush found herself hitting fifth against Michigan.
Nemitz said she thought she tipped off the changeup that Bush blasted, but the power-hitting infielder said she didn't really know what pitch it was -- she just saw it come in and swung as hard as she could to send it back the other way. Good as a freshman, when she hit 13 home runs and drove in 41 runs, Bush has been ever better this season. Her average is up nearly 80 points and her strikeout-to-walk ratio has been cut in half.
"I think more than anything, it's just the way she plays with confidence," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "Everybody always talks about the hole in her swing, and they talk about this and they talk about that. But when she swings with confidence -- I don't know what pitch it was either because the kids don't throw real, true changeups; they throw kind of a deviation from an off-speed pitch. When you see her hit and then get long -- I saw her get long, and when she gets that swing, it's going. It just her confidence, no question."
So why was Bush hitting seventh or eighth for so long before Friday night? Because where else was she going to hit? Her move up the lineup card against the Wolverines was part of a series of moves that landed Kristina Hilbreth in the No. 8 spot and Kim Waleszonia in the No. 9 spot. Hilbreth had one of the highest averages of any hitter in conference play and Waleszonia was a first-team all-conference player the past two seasons.
There simply aren't any weak spots in this lineup. And so even when opposing pitchers shut parts of it down for an extended period, someone, somewhere will come up with the necessary run production.
Has Walton ever faced a lineup as deep as the one he torments opposing coaches with?
"I'd have a hard time finding it," Walton said. "Tennessee might have had it a couple of years ago; Arizona always has a deep lineup; UCLA this year has a deep lineup. But to me, we've got some tough outs. We struck out nine times and, I think, eight [Thursday] night, but we've got some tough outs. Your first hit is coming from your eight-hole hitter; Kim gets a hit. I mean, we're pretty tough. We're pretty pleased with where we're at."
Which is one victory from a chance to play for the national championship.