A time-honored baseball cliche is that good pitching beats good hitting. If that cliche applies to softball, expect runs to be a scarce commodity this weekend.
Cal, Oklahoma, South Florida and LSU will all compete for one of two spots in the best-of-three Championship Series. Those four teams are currently 1st (Oklahoma), 2nd (South Florida), 3rd (Cal) and 9th (LSU) in the nation in earned run average. And in case you were going to scoff at LSU for being a distant 9th place, don't. They happen to have a pitcher with the lowest individual ERA in the nation. All four teams have lower ERAs than the four teams in the other half of the bracket. In the playoffs so far, facing above-average to elite competition, these four teams have combined to allow 25 runs in 24 games.
I can go on quoting crazy stats like that, but I think you get the point. Runs are going to be rare.
These are the four names you need to know: Rachele Fico (LSU), Keilani Ricketts (Oklahoma), Sara Nevins (USF) and Jolene Henderson (Cal). They are 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively on the individual ERA leaderboard. Each have pitched between 220 and 255 innings, each has an ERA in the general vicinity of 1.00, each hold opponents to a batting average below .200 and each strike out about a batter per inning or more. They are all elite, the best of the best.
As I preview each team, I'm going to try to talk about something other than pitchers. Just know that the correct answer to the 'team strength' category is always pitching, and the correct answer to the 'player to watch' category is always the #1 starting pitcher.
How They Got Here: LSU is unseeded, which means they needed to knock off 8th seeded Texas A&M in College Station. They did that by holding the powerful Aggie offense to just one run in two games and scratching out a couple of runs to escape to the Super Regionals.
There they met the Missouri Tigers, again on the road. Again pitching won the day, but LSU's offense did their part as well, managing six runs in one win and three runs in the winner-take-all rubber match.
It's worth noting that Rachele Fico pitched in LSU's 1st and 3rd game each weekend, but #2 starter Brittany Mack pitched in the middle both times, including a 12 inning complete game 'losing' effort (she didn't allow an earned run) against Missouri. If LSU was willing to go with Mack facing elimination on the road last week I see no reason why they won't do so again in Oklahoma City.
Team Strength: Jeez, it's really really hard to keep my promise and put something other than pitching/run prevention here. LSU is one of the most unbalanced teams I've ever seen. But I'll go with plate discipline.
Considering the difficulties LSU has at the plate, they draw an inordinate amount of walks and tend to avoid strike outs. Finishing with the 2nd least strikeouts in SEC conference play tells you that this team knows the strike zone and they're going to make opponents throw strikes or punish them for not doing so.
Team Weakness: Scoring runs. What else is there to say? The Tigers are last or very near to it in every single major offensive category in their conference. They hit just .221 this season, a full 22 points lower than the next worst team in the SEC. LSU doesn't have a ton of speed and they have virtually no power. Only the ability to draw walks mentioned above keeps their offense going.
Player To Watch: Ashley Langoni is LSU's best hitter. This is her triple slash line (BA, OBP, Slugging): .265/.415/.457. This is Cal's team triple slash: .318/.422/.524
How They Got Here: The Big-12 regular season and conference tournament champs destroyed everything in their path. With a perfect 5-0 record and with no playoff opponent losing by less than six runs, Oklahoma is arguably the hottest team in the country. Arizona is an excellent team with a ton of pedigree, and the Sooners dismantled them, 6-0 and 7-1.
Team Strength: Power. Lots of it. Freshman phenom Lauren Chamberlain is 2nd in the nation with 27 home runs, and Jessica Shults and Keilani Ricketts (The 2nd best two-way player in the nation) aren't far behind.
Team Weakness: Tough for me to put anything here in part because Oklahoma is a really good, complete team, and also because the Oklahoma website doesn't list season stats and the Big-12 official site is nearly as bad. I think Oklahoma may not have elite speed - they don't steal a ton and they get caught more than they should. That might be a weakness, maybe.
Player To Watch: The above-mentioned Chamberlain. She's a junior team USA veteran and what she's done as a freshman is pretty unbelievable. The home runs are one thing, but what about the plate discipline? She's hitting .352 with more walks than strike outs. She's going to be a terror for another few years.
How They Got Here: The Bulls have a similar story to LSU. A mild Cinderella, USF won the Florida regional because nobody could score runs on Sara Nevins. They won two games 1-0, including the regional clinching win over 5 seed and heavy favorite Florida. Admittedly, the Bulls got a big break when the Gators shockingly lost their opening game to Florida Gulf Coast and were sent to the loser's bracket. But good teams take advantage and USF did just that.
USF then arguably got another bit of luck because they faced fellow undeeded Cinderella Hofstra in the Super Regionals. That meant USF got to host as well (reminds me of Cal baseball last year drawing Dallas Baptist). In a matchup of two of the best pitchers in the country, the Bulls emerged victories. All three games were decided by a score of 2-1, and two of the games went into extra innings, but it was USF that won twice and advanced to Oklahoma City.
In USF's six post-season games, Sara Nevins has only one complete game. But she's also pitched in every single game they've played, whether as a starter or in relief. I wouldn't expect that to change now.
Team Strength: Team speed. Nearly every regular in USF's lineup is capable of stealing a base, which means that they're also capable of beating out infield hits. If the Bears and the Bulls meet it will make for a tough test of Cal's generally excellent team defense. If you can shut down USF's speed game it makes it very tough for them to score, in part because of their weakness.
Team Weakness: Power. USF has just 85 extra base hits in 60 games this year, and just 27 home runs. Oklahoma has more home runs than USF has extra base hits. Considering the high level of pitching the Bulls will face it's unlikely that they will hit a single home run at the World Series.
Player To Watch: Kourtney Salvarola. The sophomore shortstop makes USF's offense go with her speed and ability to get on base. And she's got enough pop to make pitchers and fielders respect her. Probably USF's most versatile position player, and she has some junior national team experience too.
And, to be complete, how about our own Bears?
How They Got Here: Survived a shock loss to Arkansas by generally dominating every other game, including two mercy-rule wins. Check out our Sunday night article detailing Cal's sweep over Washington in the Super-Regionals.
Team Strength: Fielding. Cal is 2nd in the nation in fielding percentage. Their ability to turn batted balls into outs is what separates Cal from other teams with spectacular pitchers. Victoria Jones keeps balls in front of her and does a good job controlling runners on the base paths. The left side of the infield play like seniors, and the outfield has speed to spare. Jolene Henderson's ability to field her own position is an underrated plus, and if Cal needs some extra defense off the bench they can bring in Elia Reid to rove the outfield.
Team Weakness: Um. This is kinda hard. I suppose there are some questions after Jolene Henderson at pitcher. Valerie Arioto was brilliant all year, but he has faced exactly three batters since pitching Cal to the Pac-12 title against Arizona State on May 11th. If Cal needs her, will she be ready after such a long stretch between appearances?
Player To Watch: Valerie Arioto. I have a feeling she won't be pitched around all week. Her opponents are too good, and unlikely to be intimidated by anybody, even if they happen to be the best hitter in the nation.
In case I didn't make it obvious enough, all four teams can pitch extremely well. But California and Oklahoma are both elite offensive teams and thus more well-rounded than USF or LSU. It would be a surprise if it isn't the Bears or the Sooners that make it to the Championship Series.
Cal and Oklahoma fans might count themselves lucky - both teams have drawn the rare unseeded opponent in the College World Series. But each team has that special pitcher that just might be able to carry their team all the way if they have everything going and the bounces go their way. Get ready for a series of low-scoring, stressful, one-mistake-is-the-difference-between-glory-and-agony games. Fun? Fun!