- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Forget Nostradamus; when the season opened in February, Mr. Magoo had good enough foresight to suggest a pair of All-Americans might lead Texas A&M to within a game of the championship series of the Women's College World Series.
Suggesting the same would come true with Amanda Scarborough trapped in a bulky boot protecting a broken right foot would have made Miss Cleo sound credible.
Behind Megan Gibson's second complete game gem in as many days and some timely hitting from the offense, Texas A&M held off Louisiana-Lafayette 2-1 in front of a single-session record crowd of 8,230. The win gives the Aggies a day off on Saturday and means they need just a single win on Sunday to reach the championship series.
It's just what you would expect from a team that still has an All-American in the circle and an All-American hitting fourth and anchoring the infield defense.
Texas A&M's fortunes appeared harnessed to Gibson and Scarborough when the season began. Entering their senior seasons, they had already shared the middle of the order and the pitching circle for each of their first three seasons in College Station.
Both were first-team All-Americans a season ago. Scarborough led the way in the circle with a 26-10 record and a 1.17 ERA, while Gibson did the same at the plate with a 1.290 OPS, 41 RBIs and 13 home runs. But when a broken foot forced Scarborough to shut things down after just 15 games this season, ending her career, the Aggies went off the map to Oklahoma City and entered territory previously marked as 'Here be dragons.'
Previously a valuable No. 2 pitcher who posted career-best totals in wins, ERA and strikeouts last season but relied largely on power pitching, Gibson found herself the ace of a staff that suddenly consisted of just her and freshman Rhiannon Kliesing. Instead of trying to dial her power repertoire up a notch to fill the void, Gibson instead emerged as one of the nation's best No. 1 pitchers by perfecting her ability to leave hitters guessing.
"She's just gotten really heady on the mound," Evans said. "She doesn't try to overpower hitters; she's paying attention to more of the finesse side of the game. I think she's done a lot better job of keeping the ball off the plate. She's really working well with [catcher Erin Glasco], in terms of how they're calling games and working with hitters. Before, I thought she was more trying to overpower and sometimes overthrow and now she doesn't do that. Her changeup has been a big part of her success. She's able to mix speed -- her change is deceptive; it's not easy to pick up."
A day after allowing just five singles and no walks in a shutout against Virginia Tech, Gibson held Louisiana-Lafayette's potent offense hitless through four innings. The Ragin' Cajuns pushed across a run in the sixth and certainly came close to doing more damage -- Vanessa Soto missed a run-scoring double and a home run by inches during the same at-bat -- but Gibson found ways out of what little trouble she found.
Kliesing chipped in when she delivered what turned out to be the winning hit in the top of the seventh, looping a single into center to score Jami Lobpries. But it wasn't the first time she had given Gibson a boost. The freshman pitched well enough in the regular season to keep the ace's innings down and Gibson's conditioning should permit her to comfortably take the ball for as many innings as remain in the team's season.
"I really saw that last weekend when we were playing Stanford and it was 93, 94 degrees and the humidity was unbearable," Evans said. "Our kids were perspiring, probably Gibson more than anybody and she just really held up. Her body was fatigued, and it's a tough thing because you're throwing in less than 24 hours -- you're throwing two big games. But you can see where physically she's taken care of herself and she's able to get through that."
Of course, as good as Gibson has been in establishing herself as the best all-around player in the country -- if oddly not the voters' choice as player of the year -- she was already an All-American. The reason Texas A&M still has two of them in the middle of their order rests with senior Jamie Hinshaw. A .300 hitter and outstanding defender in each of her first three seasons, Hinshaw inherited the clean-up spot after Scarborough's injury.
"Those are big shoes to fill; she's a great hitter," Hinshaw admitted. "So I think through the year I got a lot more comfortable. You have to realize your position, too -- when you hit behind Megan, they're going to pitch around Megan and possibly want to get to you or something like that. That's something you have to be mature enough to handle, so you have to realize that it's a great hitter you have in front of you. But I try not to think about it anymore. It was just at first, just because I had so much respect for Amanda and still do, and it was tough filling her shoes. It's just something I knew I had to do."
Considering that Hinshaw led the team in batting average, runs and stolen bases entering the game against Louisiana-Lafayette -- and earned All-American honors last week -- it seems she succeeded.
"She's definitely stepped up this year," Gibson said. "She's done an amazing job -- she's leading our team in batting average. I think she's done a great job with batting four, taking on Amanda's role of batting four-hole and she's stepped up at third base."
Few cleanup hitters in Oklahoma City will have a more important hit than Hinshaw did in the fourth inning of Friday's game -- even if it will also stand as the shortest hit of the week. A drag bunt, which died an inch or two beyond the batter's box, put her in the position to begin a trek around the bases that led to the team's first run.
"She's a triple threat -- we call her 'triple threat' because she can slap, drag and hit," Gibson said. "So she's a power hitter but she can also lay down a bunt to get on. I don't think a lot of teams know that about her and they don't expect her to be such a great hitter."
That Texas A&M is just a win away from a chance to take home the program's third national championship is evidence itself that this was never a two-person team. And that's no less true now. Lobpries, the fourth senior alongside Gibson, Hinshaw and Scarborough, played brilliantly. She drove in Hinshaw with a sacrifice fly for the first run. And it was Lobpries who singled to open the seventh, stole second and advanced to third on an error before she trotted home on Kliesing's big hit.
"Jami Lobpries loves to be in a pressure situation," Evans said. "She wants to be the one up to bat. And Rhi has shown she's really capable of handling that."
Gibson went right for Kliesing after she threw her the ball for the final out and grabbed the freshman in a bear hug. Making the run from her position at third base, Hinshaw wasn't far behind. The Aggies are a game away from where so many thought they could be because everyone from seniors to freshmen stepped up when adversity struck.
And it no longer takes a soothsayer to suggest they're on the verge of a championship.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.