Power Rankings: FSU holds winning hand
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Florida State ace Lacey Waldrop has a terrible poker face.
Some pitchers glower from behind sunglasses. Others accentuate glares with eyeblack. But more than anything, whatever the individual mannerisms, most simply try to maintain a facade of inscrutability. Emotions, other than the occasional fiery fist pump to reinforce dominance, are frowned upon.
They certainly don't grin. Not the affected smile that is itself an effort to let everyone know just how how much the umpire's strike zone doesn't bother you.
Just a small grin, like the one that unconsciously crosses your face when you run into an old friend.
Waldrop leads the nation in wins and all major conference pitchers in ERA. So it's not as if she lacks reason to grin.
And she does. A lot. Between innings, before pitches, even after a pitch gets away from her.
"I think it's just a reflection of my feelings," she said of her countenance. "I think about it, especially when we get in the big games -- the top-25 games -- that this is what I've dreamed of my entire life and I'm finally at this moment. That was how I felt in super regionals last year. I think a smile was just planted across my face the whole time. I was like 'Wow, we're here.' Since I was 10 this is what I wanted to do, and I'm in this moment and I'm getting to pitch for such an awesome team."
Pitching isn't poker, of course. What Waldrop enjoys about her craft is that she doesn't wait on anyone else to set the game in motion, as a poker player waits for cards or batters and fielders wait for pitches. Who cares if opponents aren't intimidated? They still have to hit her drop ball.
The identity of the best pitcher in the country wasn't clear when the season began, and it isn't clear with less than a month to go until the NCAA tournament. Arizona State's Dallas Escobedo and Alabama's Jackie Traina already have championship rings as aces. Baylor's Whitney Canion, Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe and Florida's Hannah Rogers have pitched deep into the weekend at the Women's College World Series. Others have been to Oklahoma City, too.
Waldrop hasn't been on that stage yet. No Florida State player has in a decade. But between that drop ball and her comfort in her own skin, it is tempting to push your chips to the middle of table and go all-in with her.
A pitcher has to be close to her best to get through a week in Oklahoma City, but sometimes the predictor of whether she can comes when she is at less than her best.
Saturday night, Waldrop had a plan for how to approach the following day's doubleheader at Notre Dame. She always has a plan. Her coaches help craft it, but truth be told, there aren't many moments of the day when some part of her brain isn't thinking about softball.
"Going into the games I usually feel pretty prepared at who I want to go after, try to get ahead with strikes, and who I might want to pick around a little in the zone," Waldrop explained. "That's my thought process going into the game, just knowing who to pitch to, who not to, in big situations.
"I feel like it's all about having the confidence in knowing who I'm pitching against to be successful that day."
That said, the plan fell apart Sunday against Notre Dame, as plans sometimes do. The normally reliable defense behind her kicked the ball around for four errors. The hard infield in South Bend turned a number of the ground balls on which Waldrop thrives into infield hits on which Florida State defenders didn't even have chances to make plays. Every bad bounce that could go against her did, and a very good Notre Dame team also came through with solid contact when needed.
The result was an 8-5 win for the Fighting Irish, six of the runs against Waldrop unearned.
There were admittedly fewer grins as the day's frustrations mounted, but she never appeared to sulk, never scowled after a misplayed ball or a bad bounce. She dealt with it. She's learned to do that. A 69-19 record through not even three full seasons doesn't suggest a lot of adversity, but Waldrop came to Tallahassee as a curveball pitcher asked to reinvent herself as one who relied on the drop. As if being far from home for the first time wasn't enough of a change.
"My freshman year, I was so emotional," Waldrop said of her pitching. "I feel like I would let everything get to me. A lot of it was because I wasn't confident in myself."
The thing about the grin is that it masks the competitiveness that so many other pitchers put on display. She was angry with herself after the first game in South Bend, just as she was angry earlier in the week after a home run she allowed late in a close game against Florida. What she won't do is let the anger linger. The grin always returns.
Florida State has a good lineup to complement its ace, and that offense saved what looked like a lost weekend when it rallied for four runs in the top of the seventh inning of Sunday's second game to send it to extra innings.
Waldrop didn't start the second game, but a couple of hours after the last of her 115 pitches in the opener, she came out of the bullpen to try to make the rally count. Three innings of nearly perfect relief later, she picked up the win after teammate Alex Powers drove in two runs with a pinch-hit single.
It wasn't Waldrop's best day, but she made the best of it. Pitchers who thrive in Oklahoma City do that. Pitchers who are true to themselves, be that glowering or grinning.
She doesn't need a poker face. If the ball is in her hands, she knows it's enough to be a winning hand.
Now on to the rankings (Tuesday's games not included).
1. Oregon (37-5, 11-1 Pac-12)
Before the second inning was over in Monday's series finale at Oregon State, all nine batters in Oregon's lineup had at least one hit and six of them had RBIs. That was one game against a team with pitching issues, but it's also how good this lineup can be. The final score in the game was 18-0 and the final tally on the weekend was a 38-7 margin against its in-state rival. Speaking of depth, Sammie Puentes made her case to be a more regular part of that lineup. The freshman made three appearances, more than a quarter of her season total, and went 4-for-9 at the plate.
2. Michigan (33-6, 12-0 Big Ten)
Michigan outscored Michigan State 31-1 to sweep a three-game series, with the first game played in Ann Arbor and the final two in East Lansing. The finale did, at least, require the Wolverines to go the distance, snapping a streak of five consecutive run-rule wins in five or six innings, but that was the extent of the challenge. Pick a player and she probably had a good week, but Sierra Lawrence was particularly potent with nine RBIs and three extra-base hits. This weekend's home series against Minnesota shapes up as far and away the biggest test remaining on the schedule, and Michigan checked in at No. 18 in this week's adjusted RPI (an indictment of the latter more than the former).
3. UCLA (35-4, 9-3 Pac-12)
The Bruins didn't have much to do this past week but emerged from a trip to Cal State Fullerton with a 5-2 win in their lone game. One small cause for concern was that UCLA was caught in both its stolen bases attempts in that game. As mentioned in a previous week, the Bruins are running more this season. That isn't a bad thing, but their success rate of 65 percent leaves a lot to be desired. Diversifying the offense is a good thing for a team that hasn't always been able to produce runs when needed when pitching stiffened in recent postseasons. Running into outs, especially with as much power as this team has at its disposal, isn't a good thing. Oregon State visits this week for three games.
4. Arizona State (38-6, 11-3 Pac-12)
It was a week to take the wins and move on for Arizona State, which didn't steamroll Utah at home but nonetheless got the three results it needed to hold serve in the Pac-12. Arizona State scored in the bottom of the first in all three games to take command and trailed only once in the entire series. The win in the opener was also the 1,000th win of Arizona State coach Bill Nicholson's career, the vast majority of those coming at Central Arizona, the same junior college that produced former Arizona State coach Clint Myers. A big trip to Washington awaits this weekend.
5. Tennessee (35-6, 11-4 SEC)
Tennessee woke up Saturday with three consecutive conference losses. What a difference the weekend made. Ellen Renfroe put up solid numbers in the final two games at Texas A&M and the lineup behind her scored 20 runs to clinch the series. The Lady Vols will hope to play only home and neutral-site games once the postseason arrives, but it was still a notable turnaround on a tough road stop. The remaining schedule is favorable as the Lady Vols try to secure a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament, but Mississippi State comes in this weekend with ample momentum.
6. Florida State (39-6, 16-3 ACC)
Florida State will probably be in the midst of Wednesday's doubleheader at Pitt by the time you read this.
7. Alabama (37-7, 15-3 SEC)
A series loss that ended in stunning fashion at Mississippi State notwithstanding, Alabama remained No. 1 in adjusted RPI and alone atop the SEC standings coming out of the weekend. Perspective matters, but this weekend won't be easy to forget. The dramatic ending aside, in which Alabama took a 3-0 lead in the 10th inning of the finale only to lose 4-3, offensive consistency is the larger theme. A tough SEC closing stretch looms, but this week offers what is officially a nonconference game against Auburn and weekend games against North Carolina and Georgia Southern.
8. Florida (37-8, 8-7 SEC)
The Gators didn't get many hits in their second look at Waldrop, but they made them count this time in a midweek win that evened the season series against the Seminoles -- none bigger than Bailey Castro's two-strike, two-run home run in the seventh inning. The hits came more freely in weekend wins against Florida A&M and NC State. Now it's back to conference play and a trip to Texas A&M. Even with woeful numbers in SEC play, Florida still ranks second among conference teams in on-base percentage, and its .438 mark for the season would be the best of the Tim Walton era.
9. Kentucky (36-8, 10-5 SEC)
There weren't any games of tremendous significance on the schedule this past week, but Kentucky still went 5-0 and swept a conference road series at Mississippi. That's more than enough to get the Wildcats back on this list. Senior Lauren Cumbess had a bit of a slow start at the plate this season, but that's a distant memory. In addition to a win in the circle in the weekend series, she helped her own cause with a two-run triple, the first of her career. Then she helped her fellow pitchers with a home run and three RBIs in a 10-inning win in the finale. All told, she drove in 11 runs for the week and is hitting .338 with a .577 slugging percentage, in addition to a 10-0 record as a pitcher.
10. Arizona (34-9, 9-6 Pac-12)
A loss in the middle game of a series at California in which Arizona allowed seven runs in the first inning and then didn't really respond at the plate the rest of the way was disappointing. This is a lineup that is going to need to win some games like that, but tip your cap to Cal's Stephanie Trzcinski in the circle. Arizona did manage 22 runs to secure the other two games and the series win, as Katiyana Mauga remained red hot at the plate with two more home runs and four RBIs. Arizona closes the regular season at Washington and home against Oregon, so the Wildcats need to make use of the intervening days. First comes some rest, with no games scheduled this week.
Next five: Louisiana-Lafayette, Oklahoma, Washington, Missouri, Minnesota.