UCLA and Washington are unbeaten no longer. Kelly Barnhill no longer seems unbeatable.
It was an interesting week in college softball, to say the least.
At a time of year when college basketball traditionally condenses its cast, eliminating the pretenders and not-quite-contenders, softball only added characters and plot twists in recent days.
Start with No. 12 Georgia, which won two of three games against No. 3 Florida a year after it went 0-12 against SEC rivals Auburn, Florida, LSU and Texas A&M. But more than stockpiling impressive wins at home, Georgia turned the sport on its head by making Barnhill, the best pitcher in college softball, look as uncomfortable as we've seen her.
A pitcher who throws a rise ball is going to give up home runs. A high-velocity pitch that all but sits on a tee if it doesn't rise enough can travel a long way in the other direction when a batter makes contact. It's always a risk. Monica Abbott only gave up 35 earned runs in more than 358 innings as a senior at Tennessee with one of the best rise balls of all time. Included in that number were 14 home runs.
It's a measure of how special Barnhill is, too, that despite throwing a rise in that same class, she had allowed just 13 home runs in more than 370 career innings entering the Georgia series.
Then she allowed four home runs in four innings spread across the first two games of the series, including back-to-back-to-back home runs to the heart of Georgia's order in the opener.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Georgia would get to Barnhill, but it's tempting to wonder how much the complexion of the SEC race changed because of one illegal pitch.
Staked to a 1-0 lead in the top half of the first inning in the first game, Barnhill appeared to retire Georgia in order in the bottom of the first. The final at-bat was quintessential Barnhill against one of the SEC's best hitters. She got Alyssa DiCarlo to swing through a low rise on the first pitch, froze her with strike two down at the knees and induced a pop up on the third pitch up and out of the zone. A lesser hitter might have whiffed. But even as the Gators jogged off the field and the broadcast cut to commercial, an illegal-pitch call gave DiCarlo new life. She didn't waste it, driving the first of her two home runs in the game deep beyond the fence in right-center.
Alysen Febrey and Mahlena O'Neal followed with home runs, each on two-strike pitches.
Rather than have Barnhill face those hitters a second time when the bottom of the third inning arrived, Florida coach Tim Walton took her out and put in Aleshia Ocasio. All of that, in turn, eventually led to Ocasio facing DiCarlo in the bottom of the seventh after Florida had reclaimed a one-run lead.
And in Ocasio's first pitching appearance against the Bulldogs since she was on the wrong side of a walk-off home run to end a 2016 super regional, DiCarlo repeated history with a walk-off home run.
Florida will take something from how Ocasio responded, coming within an out of a shutout in Sunday's series finale and generally shutting down a lineup that proved its worth all week. But Barnhill's weekend never got much better. Hurt by another illegal pitch in the first inning of the second game of the series, she was eventually replaced after DiCarlo led off the bottom of the third with a home run.
That the first weekend of Pac-12 conference play claimed the nation's final two unblemished teams was not much of a shock. It wasn't a surprise to see No. 2 UCLA's Rachel Garcia take over the opening game of the series against No. 6 Oregon, pitching a complete game and hitting a home run. It also wasn't a surprise to see the Ducks rebound to win the final two games, including a Megan Kleist shutout in the Sunday rematch against Garcia that ended on a Shannon Rhodes walk-off home run (walk-offs against All-Americans was the weekend theme, apparently).
Entertaining, absolutely, and worthy of an Oklahoma City rematch. But not surprising.
Perhaps it was a bit of a surprise to see No. 1 Washington's perfect season end in a shutout loss in the series opener at No. 10 Arizona State, but Sun Devils ace G Juarez hasn't allowed a run in 46 consecutive innings entering Monday's decisive series finale between the teams.
But seeing Barnhill, the best pitcher in the sport, give up almost a season's worth of home runs in a weekend? That's a wrinkle in the championship race that was difficult to see coming.