OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso knew it sounded strange as she said it out loud. Something good came out of a loss? But hold on a second, because she can describe the silver lining of Monday's 7-3 defeat at the hands of UCLA.
To be put on the brink of elimination like that -- to have her team's dream of winning back-to-back Women's College World Series titles threatened for the first time all season -- was informative, she explained.
"To see our team bow up and step up and say, 'We're not going home,'" Gasso said, "that was important."
Oklahoma's bats fell uncharacteristically silent during the first game of what turned out to be a doubleheader against UCLA. Home run queen Jocelyn Alo stepped to the plate in the fifth inning as the game's tying run, and instead of doing what Jocelyn Alo does and sending the ball far over the outfield fence, she struck out swinging. The largely pro-Sooners crowd was stunned by only the team's third loss of the season.
But there was no panic between games, no fire-and-brimstone speech from Gasso in the roughly 30 minutes they spent waiting to take the field again. All they needed was to hit reset, Alo said, and by the look of the final stat sheet, she was right. Facing elimination, Alo was the hero once again, clubbing a pair of home runs, including a grand slam that brought her RBI total to seven. The 15-0 win was the largest margin of victory in WCWS history.
Lost in the offensive fireworks was the other reason Gasso could tell a group of reporters with a straight face that losing a game was a "blessing." It proved something to her and her team and maybe even the rest of the country: Hope Trautwein, who last year pitched a perfect game in which she struck out 21 of 21 batters and then chose to transfer to Oklahoma from North Texas during the offseason, is the real deal.
A month ago, the Sooners' march to the WCWS -- a wire-to-wire run as the No. 1 team in softball, with the top ERA and the top batting average in the game -- was nearly derailed when ace pitcher Jordy Bahl felt something pop in her right forearm as she warmed up during the last series of the regular season against Oklahoma State. Immediately, she shut it down and hasn't started a game since, only appearing in a few innings of relief this week as she continues to work her way back.
And it was into that void that Trautwein entered, a pitcher with an ERA so absurd that it might be enough to make Bill James question the validity of statistics: 0.17, the best in Division I. Catcher Lynnsie Elam and shortstop Grace Lyons spoke about it at one point during the conference tournament, asking one another, "Is that even possible? Is that real?" They were talking about how Trautwein allowed only two earned runs through the middle of May, after all.
But then again, how real was it? Bahl was the All-American and co-Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, not Trautwein. Being the team's No. 2 pitcher -- even if she was the best No. 2 in the country -- meant Trautwein had a relative degree of comfort with roughly half as many starts (14 vs. 23) and 38.7% fewer innings pitched than Bahl (81 vs. 132 1/3) entering the postseason. Stepping into her shoes and shouldering the responsibility of the No. 1 starter, would Trautwein be the same pitcher?
Speaking to ESPN prior to the start of the NCAA tournament, Gasso was careful as she discussed Trautwein's eye-popping ERA. She was a good pitcher, Gasso said with something approaching skepticism in her voice, but "she probably has thrown quite a bit less innings than most pitchers."
The reason sounded as strange as Gasso talking about the positive effect of the loss to UCLA: Oklahoma was a victim of its own dominance with 76% of its games ending early by virtue of lopsided scores. Gasso was uneasy about what that meant. She'd never experienced anything like it. Some back-of-the-napkin math told her their pitchers had lost nearly 60 innings worth of work to run-rule games.
"I'm not taking anything away from her because she's earned all of it," Gasso said of Trautwein back in mid-May. "It's just a different world for us."
The month since Gasso laid out her concerns have affirmed two things: Going up against All-American hitters like Alo and Lyons and Tiare Jennings and Jayda Coleman every day in practice might be all the preparation a pitcher needs, and Trautwein can handle the pressure. It's why she chose to transfer from North Texas, she said, hinting at a confidence that can be obscured by her happy-go-lucky smile outside of the pitching circle.
Truth be told, Oklahoma needed her. In a statement announcing her addition a year ago this month, Gasso alluded to Trautwein's experience, which she said would be "really important for this young staff that we have coming in and returning." She went on to tout Trautwein's bona fides, which included Conference USA Pitcher of the Year honors, and called her a "perfect fit."
If only she knew how perfect. Trautwein wouldn't have another 21 strikeout game, but she would no-hit UCF during the super regionals.
Her two-hit shutout against UCLA on Monday was just her latest impressive outing. Since postseason play began with the Big 12 tournament, she's thrown a team-high 40 innings and posted an ERA of 1.40. During the NCAA tournament, she's 5-0.
With each start, her confidence has grown. While not as outwardly intense as Bahl, Trautwein has an aura that fits right in at Oklahoma.
"It's funny, because if you meet her off the field, you would be like, 'She's the sweetest soul. There's no way she could be like such a dominant pitcher,'" Alo said. "But she is, and she's legit, and she makes me better every day."
Gasso went into last Saturday's game against Texas expecting to use the bullpen and mix-and-match pitchers against the Longhorns' dangerous lineup, Bahl included. But then Trautwein got the start and never gave Gasso a reason to make a change, allowing two runs in the complete-game effort. Afterward, Gasso said it was clear that Trautwein had found her comfort zone. She added, "Hope is kind of on fire right now."
Trautwein, for her part, is matter-of-fact about her development on the game's biggest stage. Upon arriving in Oklahoma City, she said she took some advice from Elam: Look around at the crowd once and don't look at them again.
All postseason long, she's followed a simple rule of thumb: "Stick to my routine."
"I've definitely been getting more used to the environment," she added. "It's hard to play here whenever you have a lot of distractions going on, and I really have locked into my routine as I have thrown more innings. Being comfortable and knowing my team has my back, it's getting easier as the innings go on."
Her ERA might not be 0.17 anymore, but 0.58 is more than all right for someone who has become the go-to pitcher on a team two wins away from a national championship.