Aren't we supposed to be whittling down the number of contenders in college softball as May approaches, not adding to the list?
Already on the short list of championship contenders, or, perhaps of more immediate concern, of teams likely to control their own ability to host NCAA tournament super regionals, LSU looked the part in easing to a 9-0 run-rule win at Missouri on Monday night. But as with Auburn a week earlier in its high-profile series against Alabama, a win in a finale only staved off a sweep. In this case, Missouri won the first two games of the series against LSU, including the latter's first run-rule loss of the season.
The SEC will take the spotlight soon enough, beginning with Florida visiting Missouri and Auburn visiting LSU this weekend and continuing with next week's SEC tournament, but it's a big country out there. Let's span the map with five of the past week's most interesting developments.
1. Cheridan Hawkins makes her case
These are not good times to be a pitcher. Kind of like the 17th century was not a good time in which to be a dodo bird.
Harken back to a simpler time, in this case one year ago, and three Division I teams averaged at least seven runs per game, led by Arizona at 7.5. A total of 24 teams averaged at least six runs per game and 78 teams averaged at least five. Granted, more runs were scored per game a season ago than in any other season in NCAA history, so even that wasn't exactly a pitching paradise. But it was nothing compared with the current predicament.
Entering this past weekend, Oklahoma led the nation at 8.85 runs per game, one of six teams that averaged at least eight. There were 12 more teams that averaged at least seven, 44 teams that averaged at least six and 118 teams that averaged five.
Against the backdrop of record runs, the nation's best hitters have accumulated truly gaudy statistics. And in a crowded race for national player of the year honors, it's justifiably difficult to turn away from Sierra Romero's .634 on-base percentage or Shelby Pendley's 1.101 slugging percentage. Even with a 23-0 record in the circle, Lauren Haeger's 1.187 OPS at the plate helps her cause.
Yet in shutting down one of the most run-happy lineups, Oregon's Cheridan Hawkins reasserted that a pitcher still has a place in that conversation. And perhaps earned bonus points for doing so. Hawkins went 4-0 for the week, two wins coming in relief, but she could have pitched far less than well and picked up wins with the kind of run support the Ducks provided. She didn't need the help. Against Louisiana-Lafayette, which entered with the nation's No. 2 scoring offense, she allowed five hits and two earned runs in 11 1/3 innings, struck out 21 batters and had a five-inning no-hitter.
The past weekend was obviously a break from conference play, but in a league the Ducks are about to win yet again, her ERA in Pac-12 games is nearly a run better than the next-best pitcher and more than two runs better than any other ace.
What some hitters are doing this season sets them apart from those who came before. What Hawkins is doing, with a 23-3 record, 1.13 ERA and 0.71 WHIP, sets her apart from her peers.
That's at least worth thinking about before filling out any ballots.
2. Beehive State breakthrough
Utah is going to the NCAA tournament. No, the Utes didn't clinch any kind of automatic bid this past week, nor will they claim the one available to the Pac-12 champion. But by winning two of three games at Arizona State, a fifth consecutive series win in conference, the league's newest softball member made it all but impossible for the NCAA selection committee to leave it at home in a couple of weeks.
Hannah Flippen and Kate Dickman, first and second on the lineup card and far and away the most consistent run producers, combined for seven hits, one walk and five RBIs, while Katie Donovan continued to pitch like the third-best ace in the Pac-12.
Ranked in the top 30 of the RPI even before the Tempe trip, Utah needs one win in three games against Washington in two weeks to ensure a .500 finish in the same league in which it went 2-22 in its 2012 debut. So for the first time since 2006, expect to see the Utes in the bracket.
Here's the thing. While neither Utah, once a regular, nor in-state rival BYU is a stranger to the NCAA tournament, the two schools made the field in the same season on just one previous occasion. BYU doesn't have Utah's at-large bid security this season, but it went a long way toward ensuring it won't need help by sweeping second-place San Diego in a West Coast Conference series this past week.
Gordy Bravo, who both has one of the best names in the country and plays like one of its better all-around outfielders, went 5-for-8 with three walks, three RBIs and four runs against San Diego after a big day in a midweek win against Utah State (as detailed here, Bravo also took an interesting route to Provo). Take it with a grain of salt because of a schedule short on tests, but with a prolific offense and a pitcher in McKenna Bull, another great name, who could cause problems in the postseason if she keeps her walks in check, BYU is a team to keep an eye on.
3. No one wants to pitch to Lauren Chamberlain
Not that you can necessarily blame them, even if it means pitching to Pendley and the rest of the nation's highest-scoring offense.
If Chamberlain has looked eager to put history behind her and move on with the season as she chases career home run No. 91 and a new NCAA career record, it's nothing compared with the jitters from opponents who apparently want no part of being a historical footnote. In five games this past week, Chamberlain walked 12 times and was hit by a pitch.
Only three Big 12 teams walked more than she did all on her own in that span.
The result was a bit of history, albeit not of the headline variety, as Chamberlain became the eighth player in NCAA history to total 200 career walks (she trails Arkansas' Devon Wallace for the lead among active players). Between the walks and a batting average still on the prosperous side of .400, she's reaching base nearly 60 percent of the time. For the most part, that means foes merely slow the time it takes her to circle the bases because the rest of the lineup still gets her home. But that wasn't the case in the series opener at Kansas on Friday, when the Sooners stranded nine runners and lost on an eighth-inning walk-off home run from Daniella Chavez.
That loss, although followed by two convincing wins, could affect a number that will soon concern Oklahoma and its fans more than 91: the team's NCAA tournament seed. With no meaningful RPI games remaining, Oklahoma is going to finish outside of the top eight in those rankings and probably around its current position in the mid-teens. With RPI data available dating back to 2007, there are only two instances (out of 64 such seeds) of teams ranked No. 12 or lower at the time of selection earning top-eight seeds. So either the committee does something it has never shown much inclination to do or the Sooners would be high-profile visitors in a super regional.
4. Emma Johnson pitches a full house
Let's return to the circle for a moment.
It's interesting, if perhaps coincidental, that with run production soaring across the country, so many of the best pitching performances we do have come from beyond the biggest conferences. Western Kentucky's Miranda Kramer turned in yet another a week to remember. James Madison freshman Megan Good improved to 24-0 with a six-inning no-hitter against Elon on Sunday and has a running mate who is equally difficult to hit in Jailyn Ford. And while UCF's Shelby Turnier and Mackenzie Audas had the week mostly off, teaming up for a one-hit shutout against North Florida in their team's lone game, they remain almost impossible to score against.
Kent State's Emma Johnson is very much part of that club.
Four seasons ago, in her first weekend as a collegian, Johnson shut down Minnesota and held an Oklahoma lineup that featured Chamberlain, Keilani Ricketts and Jessica Shults scoreless for five innings. More recently, she shut out Michigan this season and struck out 18 in a shutout against UCF to upstage Turnier. The competition wasn't as daunting this past week, but the senior still put on a show by throwing a no-hitter, one-hitter and two-hitter in three starts, the pitching equivalent of poker's full house, and coming on for a save in her fourth appearance of the week.
Add it up and she pitched 22 innings without allowing an earned run and struck out 29 batters.
5. The year of the freshman continues
It says something about the depth of this freshman class that the NFCA could come up with 25 finalists for its freshman of the year award and not include Texas State's Randi Rupp.
The list of finalists, which included Rupp's teammate Ariel Ortiz, didn't slight the pitcher -- this class really does appear to be that good. But don't bet against her finding a place among the best in her class at some point before schools start handing out diplomas in the spring of 2018.
The high school player of the year in Texas a year ago, Rupp has worked 70 percent of the innings available this season for Texas State. That's not quite the territory of Marshall's Jordan Dixon (84 percent of her team's innings), but it's among the most severe workloads out there and considerable responsibility for a freshman. How is she holding up? Pretty well, it seems.
Rupp pitched 24 1/3 innings in four appearances this past week and allowed just eight hits and two earned runs. She struck out 31 batters and walked four. Two weeks ago she threw a five-inning perfect game, that a few weeks after missing a seven-inning perfect game by a hit batter. James Madison's Good and Oklahoma's Paige Parker are the only freshmen with more wins, and only six pitchers in any class have more strikeouts.
Take out her four worst appearances this season and Rupp's ERA drops from a still respectable 2.83 to 1.82. Obviously, you can't just erase those innings. Her ERA is a measure of a full season's performance, and those four appearances are part of Rupp's portfolio in the circle. But it also means that, rather than generally meandering along at the same all season, Rupp has been much better than that ERA for long stretches (and much worse for brief moments).
That is to say, we don't need to imagine her potential; she's shown her potential. Now she has the rest of this season and three more to smooth the rough edges and polish the strengths.
Did we mention the pitching coach who will be working with her on those things?