Weekend Rewind: Even Paige Parker, Kelly Barnhill and Rachel Garcia need a backup plan
There is only so much one person can control. That's a thought that might have occurred to gardeners who spent the weekend shoveling spring snow off green shoots. Or to those responsible for trying to schedule softball games, come to think of it.
Mother Nature taunted softball this past week. Rain, wind and even snow created challenging conditions for those on the field and logistical headaches for those who tried to keep them there. And in its own way, that uncertainty was the ideal backdrop for a week that reiterated that one player, no matter how good, can't always control a game with as many moving parts as softball.
Oklahoma's Paige Parker began the week in the midst of her best statistical season, which is no small feat for someone who was previously the ace of two national championship teams. When she took the field for a midweek game against Wichita State, she had allowed just six earned runs in more than 104 innings this season. Yet after she left two pitches high in the zone and saw them sent aloft with the wind blowing out, Parker had allowed six more runs in less than three innings against the Shockers. And No. 2 Oklahoma's 25-game winning streak was in jeopardy.
The Sooners still trailed 6-0 entering the bottom of the sixth inning. But as in last year's NCAA regional, when they rallied from a two-run deficit in the 10th inning of an elimination game, a lineup without weak links strung together a rally. This time highlighted by Lea Wodach's three-run home run and Jocelyn Alo's two-run single, Oklahoma scored seven runs in the inning to take the lead and then let Paige Lowary close out the comeback.
Parker is fine. She didn't allow a run in two starts against Kansas, as the Sooners extended their streak to 29 consecutive wins. But Oklahoma's success the past three seasons isn't built on one player but the unmatched balance that minimizes, if never fully eliminates, bad days.
That wasn't the case for No. 6 Arizona State when its talisman struggled in a 5-0 loss to No. 3 Oregon on Friday. One of the few who has upstaged even Parker this season, G Juarez also found trouble in windy conditions. Granted, scoring against Oregon pitching is trickier than against Wichita State, but in their comeback attempt, no Sun Devils hitter extended an at-bat to even a three-ball count, and only seven to so much as a two-ball count.
Arizona State averted a sweep behind Jade Gortarez's near-cycle (she was a single away) and Juarez's shutout Sunday. But consistency of run production in top-tier games means a question mark lingers about the Sun Devils.
Ditto for No. 5 Georgia. Days after announcing ace Brittany Gray would miss the rest of the season with an injury, Georgia split two games against Mercer before the finale was canceled by weather. The loss itself isn't a catastrophe -- the teams ranked in the top 10 a week ago have a combined 10 losses against teams from beyond power five conferences, and Mercer was No. 65 in RPI even before the upset. But the Bulldogs, who will be as good as their lineup depth and defense without Gray's strikeouts, generated little offense in the loss and were nearly undone by three errors in a narrow win in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader.
There were no wobbles for Kelly Barnhill in two starts for No. 7 Florida against No 12 South Carolina. The reigning espnW player of the year came within two outs of a no-hitter in her first start and allowed two hits and one run while striking out 21 batters in 14 innings in the series. The greater question for the Gators, as for others here, is what happens when their pitching isn't flawless. That was the case in a midweek loss at No. 8 Florida State that Barnhill didn't start -- and in surprising shutout losses in recent weeks against UCF and Florida International.
As has been true for years, Florida is a model of plate discipline. But the other side of Hannah Adams, Amanda Lorenz and Nicole DeWitt possessing a collective on-base percentage well above .500 at the top of the order, as coach Tim Walton had arguably his three most consistent run producers arrayed in this series, is that the rest of the lineup needs to make opponents pay for those three living on base. That happened in the second game of the South Carolina series, when the Gators won comfortably. But for the series, the top three in the order combined for 10 hits and six walks. Everyone else combined for eight hits and seven walks.
Even one of the weekend's virtuoso solo performances was accompanied by a study in the value of a supporting cast. Limited to hitting duties since March 24 by a sore arm, Rachel Garcia pitched valuable relief innings in each game during UCLA's first sweep at Arizona since the conference adopted the current scheduling format a decade ago. She puts the Bruins on a different level when she pitches. But Garcia, who hit three home runs and drove in seven runs, was also a big part of a lineup that scored 24 runs and is as complete as the one in Oklahoma.
Four of the past six national champions didn't have a player among the 10 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year. Stars help, and stars are sometimes made over a week in Oklahoma City. But when things don't go as planned -- when wind blows, schedules gets crowded or a star just has a forgettable day -- the quality of Plan B can be a cornerstone of championships.