WCWS 2019: Three errors, and Oklahoma was out in Game 1 against UCLA
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Prior to Game 1 of the Women's College World Series championship series on Monday, the Oklahoma Sooners looked invincible -- at least on paper. They led the nation in runs per game and team ERA and had committed the fewest errors.
Hitting, pitching and defense. That's how they won 41 games in a row and spent more weeks at No. 1 than any other team in America.
But Monday night against UCLA, the only thing that resembled that unbeatable team were the uniforms. Everything else looked like someone else, especially the back-to-back-to-back third-inning errors that sparked a UCLA offensive outburst and led to a 16-3 Bruins victory.
The 13-run margin not only set the record for the most lopsided outcome in the WCWS championship series but was also the second-largest margin of victory in any Women's College World Series game.
"Give credit to UCLA," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said afterward. "They cleaned our clock. There's no tiptoeing around it. Nothing in our game worked tonight."
Just like that, a team that has lost five times all season, a championship-experienced squad vying for its third title in four years, must heal quickly from an ugly loss or risk watching the Bruins win their record 12th Women's College World Series title on Tuesday.
The odds are against the Sooners. Since the best-of-three format was adopted in 2005, the winner of Game 1 of the championship series has won the title in 11 of 14 years, including each of the past six.
Prior to the Sooners' at-bat in the sixth inning, when the outcome had already been decided, Gasso gathered her team to instill the message that the series was far from over.
"I told them, 'This game does not define our season,'" Gasso said. "This team is very resilient. That was probably the worst game we played all season on the biggest stage. Unfortunately, it happened that way. But it does not define what we are. I think you'll see a different team tomorrow."
The team the softball world saw on Monday was unlike any other Sooners squad seen all season. In a game decided by 13 runs, it's hard to point to one thing. But on Monday, an uncharacteristically disastrous third inning provided the catalyst for a final score no one expected. The score was tied 1-1 when the inning began, but after the stunning defensive collapse, UCLA had a 3-1 lead it did not give back.
"It sucks that three errors happened at one time in one inning," Oklahoma's Shay Knighten said. "But we are not going to be perfect all the time."
The first miscue came with UCLA's Kinsley Washington behind in the count 0-2. She poked a slap grounder past Oklahoma ace Giselle Juarez and into the glove of Sooners shortstop Grace Lyons. The speedy Washington was already safe when Lyons fired to first anyway, overshooting Knighten and sending Washington to second with nobody out.
On the next pitch, UCLA freshman Kelli Godin dropped a bunt down the first-base line. Knighten picked it up and fired to Caleigh Clifton covering first, but the throw was a touch on the foul side of the base. With Godin about to arrive at first, the ball ricocheted off Clifton's glove, allowing Washington to score and Godin to advance to second.
Three pitches later, Bruins leadoff hitter Bubba Nickles roped a single to left, and it squeezed under the glove of Sooners left fielder Fale Aviu, allowing Godin to score. After a sacrifice bunt moved Nichols to third, Juarez retired Aaliyah Jordan and Rachel Garcia to end the inning. But the damage had been done.
Knighten said after the game that she didn't think there was a correlation among the errors on three consecutive plays. But Gasso wasn't so sure.
"We've been in positions where we make mistakes and keep going," Gasso said. "This was not typical of this team. Did it bleed into others? I don't know. CC [Clifton] doesn't drop a ball at second on a bunt. She doesn't do that. Grace doesn't overthrow at first. There were things where it was like, 'Whoa, what is going on?'"
The Bruins took advantage. On a stage that felt like an Oklahoma home game with Norman just a half-hour down the road, the Bruins silenced the hometown crowd with runs in the first, third, fourth and fifth innings, followed by a six-spot in the sixth and a five-spot in the seventh to blow the game open.
The Sooners ended up using four pitchers on the night, all of whom surrendered at least three runs. Included in the group of pitchers was outfielder Nicole Mendes. Before Monday, Oklahoma as a team had given up three or more runs in two of its previous 25 games.
Prior to a game that had been billed as a battle of old (UCLA) vs. new (Oklahoma) softball dynasties, the chatter on Oklahoma City sports talk radio was that of the Sooners as softball's unstoppable version of the Golden State Warriors. The only thing that could get in their way, the argument had been made, was themselves.
Certainly, the Sooners weren't themselves on Monday. But that takes credit away from the Bruins, who spent five weeks as the No. 1 team in the country this year, only two fewer weeks than the Sooners. In their two games this year, the Bruins have handed Oklahoma its two largest defeats -- by a combined 23-4 score.
It was clear from the beginning that neither starting pitcher, Oklahoma's Juarez or UCLA's Garcia, had the same dominant stuff displayed one day earlier. Garcia threw 179 pitches in a 3-0, 10-inning win over Washington, and Juarez gave up one run in eight innings against Alabama, then came back to throw 1 2/3 innings in the second game against the Crimson Tide.
That made airtight defense behind both pitchers all the more important. Although the Bruins mishandled the ball 41 times this season, they didn't make their first error on Monday until the bottom of the sixth, when catcher Paige Halstead dropped a popup behind home plate. The Sooners, meanwhile, made their fourth error of the night in the top of the seventh, when Lyons' throw on a sharp grounder by Brianna Tautalafua pulled Knighten off the bag at first. That mistake meant that 22 percent of the errors the Sooners made the entire 62-game season came Monday against UCLA.
"I told [the team] not to read what people are going to be saying about us," Gasso said. "Don't get caught up in all of that."
Added Knighten: "You have to just flush it. Let it go. You can't go back and change it. The outcome is the outcome. We have to get back to what we do and come out with the same mentality knowing we have two games left. We are not out of anything."