Florida's Hannah Rogers just delivers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It might have been a sign it was Hannah Rogers' day when the second batter of the first game of her final Women's College World Series struck a ball that caromed off the aforementioned Florida pitcher's glove but fell into the path of charging third baseman Stephanie Tofft in time to get the out at first base.
When she then produced an inning-ending kick save the next inning, an even harder batted ball ricocheting off her cleat directly to shortstop Katie Medina for the throw to first base, a different thought drifted through the thick Oklahoma air.
Maybe this is going to be her week.
The path is temptingly simple. All Rogers has to do for the next six days is what she has already done more often than any other player in college softball at the moment. That is to say: win.
It wasn't all about good bounces for the Gators, of course. No. 5 Florida needed just five innings to dispose of No. 13 Baylor 11-0 in Thursday's opening game, the final four runs scored on Chelsea Herndon's pinch-hit walk-off home run against former high school teammate Heather Stearns. It was the fifth run-rule win of the postseason for the Gators, who totaled five extra-base hits.
The offensive production against Baylor ace Whitney Canion and Stearns in a game in which runs were supposed to be hard to come by overshadowed the pitcher who held up her end of the bargain.
Even the anecdotes upstaged the ace. When Florida's Bailey Castro drove in two runs in the first and ended up on third base after an errant throw, Florida coach Tim Walton grabbed both of her shoulders and spoke to her in a decidedly animated fashion. The message turned out to be more sugary than the manner suggested. Literally. Walton said the only words spoken were "funnel cake," a reference dating back to the SEC tournament a season ago when he promised Castro a funnel cake for a hit. This time, according to catcher Aubree Munro, it will be funnel cakes all around.
But we're getting away from Rogers. It's all too easy to do. In fact, it kind of sums up her time with the Gators.
"She pushed herself and not only changed the way she pitches, but changed her mentality and everything about her in her four-year career to get to this point," Walton said a day before the game. "She got us here this season."
This is the senior's third trip to the World Series. She entered Thursday's game tied with Canion for first among active pitchers with 123 career wins. She now has first place all to herself on that list and in the process passed former Virginia Tech All-American and national player of the year Angela Tincher for 14th in NCAA Division I history. And while wins are a flawed measure of an individual pitcher's performances, it's not as if she's a product of run support. She trails only Canion and South Florida's Sara Nevins in career ERA among active pitchers with at least 100 wins.
She just does it all so quietly.
She doesn't have eye-popping strikeout numbers. She does have a stoic demeanor that holds through good and bad. She doesn't have Taryne Mowatt's charisma, Danielle Lawrie's death stare or Keilani Rickett's larger-than-life presence, to single out a few recent champions here. She just pitches. Five innings, three hits and no walks on this day.
"She's a little more quiet as pitchers go," Munro said. "A lot of pitchers can be really outspoken and really animated, but Hannah just kind of comes in and gets her work done. She's a workhorse. She's in with [pitching coach Jennifer Rocha] -- she watches more video than any of us players, honestly. She's in there doing her homework on every team we're about to face. She makes her own notes, she gives them to Rocha, they get a plan together as a team."
She is the only player on the Florida roster who appeared in the 2011 World Series, when the team reached the best-of-three championship series. To get there that year, she pitched a four-hitter to complete Florida's comeback against Alabama in the semifinals. It was a performance overshadowed, naturally, by her team's 11-run first inning against the Crimson Tide earlier in the day to force the decisive game.
Her team has changed completely since then; she quite a bit, too.
"I think my freshman year, you're here for the experience and you're just having a good time," Rogers said. "Also, it's your first time here, so there are a lot of nerves there. This year, this is my third time being here, so I'm just trying to be really confident and be there for my teammates."
Baylor came up with the hits it needed against good pitching to get to Oklahoma City, not easily against Tulsa standout and United States national team veteran Aimee Creger in a regional or Georgia's Chelsea Wilkinson on the road in a super regional, but they struggled to make even dangerous contact against Rogers as runs mounted against them. The only hint of trouble came in the fourth on a bunt single and a hard shot that the third baseman could only smother. Most of the game was a series of pop-ups or grounder on balls in on the hands or moving away.
Among those in the stands Thursday was Team USA second baseman Lauren Gibson, whose time at the University of Tennessee overlapped that of Rogers at Florida for three seasons.
"Hannah's a very good pitcher that can hit her corners," Gibson said. "I think the main goal going up there is you have to be able to hit the good pitches when you get them because you may only get one an at-bat or one a game. ... I feel like every at-bat she tried to change. She never wanted to be someone that you could guess what she was going to throw you. I feel like she learned me as a batter as much as I learned her as a pitcher."
Her demeanor aside, she has experienced her share of ups and downs, from a long night in the 2011 championship series to several rough starts in a stretch early this season. She keeps pitching.
"She had belief systems that she was a curveball pitcher or rise ball pitcher," Walton said of her maturation. "And she has humbled herself in some ways -- where she has had bad games and given up hits where she thought her stuff was better than it was. She has changed her mentality in understanding how to trust her stuff and where she is pitching and not try to make perfect pitches. She sometimes pitches to contact, sometimes to miss. She uses her defense very well."
If she keeps winning until there are no more games to win next week -- and the Gators reached the final series in each of the past two World Series in which they opened with a win -- we might finally see the emotion until now elusive. Or she might just smile a little and walk into the sunset.
"She's not standoffish, it's not that," Munro said. "She's just a little bit more to herself. She comes in, gets her work done, goes home. But she's opened up a lot since I've been here. She's one of my friends -- her and Bailey live together, and we'll all go hang out at their place."
There is a significant obstacle in Florida's path. One of college softball's ascending stars is Oregon sophomore Cheridan Hawkins who might already have a higher profile than her elder counterpart, thanks to her time with both the junior and senior national teams last summer and numbers such as 319 strikeouts in 237 innings this season. Hawkins hardly looked out of her element in her first career appearance in the World Series.
With less run support than Rogers, and facing her own duel against USA Softball Player of the Year Lacey Waldrop, she allowed just one hit in seven innings for the top seed in a 3-0 win against eighth-seeded Florida State. Even that lone hit was a first-inning single by Maddie O'Brien, a hitter most teams are happy to put on first base if it means she isn't hitting doubles and home runs.
"I was definitely just a little bit nervous and excited," Hawkins said of her first World Series innings, which also presented some problems with perspiration on her hands on a warm and humid day in Oklahoma City. "So I was experiencing some of those emotions, but ... I think after the first inning I settled down a little bit."
One of the best game Rogers pitched all season came in a 2-1 win against Oregon on Feb. 28 in which she went eight innings, struck out eight and didn't allow an earned run. But she and Hawkins went head for head over just the final three innings of that game, a stretch in which Oregon's ace allowed one unearned run but no hits.
"Obviously, we're going to throw Cheridan out there against them," Oregon coach Mike White said. "They'll probably throw Hannah Rogers, which we've had difficulty against. Hopefully, we make the adjustments. I think we're seeing the ball pretty well right now. We made Waldrop throw some strikes. We laid off the marginal pitches and made her come into the strike zone. In some respects, Rogers is exactly the same way. We have to make her come into the strike zone."
The pitcher who wins Friday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) will be in the driver's seat to be back in the circle with a championship on the line Monday night.