5 Burning Questions on WCWS
It was only appropriate that during a season in which offense has largely ruled the day and much of the conversation has centered on programs seeking their first national championship, Missouri's Gina Schneider brought super regionals to a close with a walk-off home run against UCLA in Westwood.
The field for the Women's College World Series has a different look than in recent seasons, and not just because it will be without the mighty Bruins for the second time in three years. The field still comes complete with burning questions to ponder before Washington and Georgia get started Thursday (ESPN, 1 p.m. ET).
1. Will the Women's College World Series prove which conference rules softball?
Not even remotely, but that won't stop most people from pretending otherwise.
Missouri and Michigan will add a much-needed touch of Midwestern reality to the on-the-field proceedings in Oklahoma City, but that's not much of a barrier against the rising tide of softball's ongoing great debate: Pac-10 versus SEC. (Arizona, Arizona State and Washington represent the Pac-10 while Florida, Alabama and Georgia rep the SEC.) And whatever happens between now and the final pitch of the championship series next week, some contingent will add a valuable chip to its debate stockpile.
The SEC can win its first national championship and, on the heels of a record nine berths in the NCAA tournament, strengthen its argument as the sport's empire on the rise. The Pac-10 can yet again silence its purported challengers, adding another championship outpost to its reach with Washington, another repeat champion in Arizona State or another piece of one of the grandest dynasties at Arizona.
Or Michigan or Missouri could remind everyone that the Big Ten and Big 12, conferences that already have championships to their credit, play some pretty good softball in the supposed hinterlands.
The catch is that none of the above scenarios will sway almost anyone to change camps. The increasing intensity of the debate is itself evidence of the sport's growing parity, but nothing that happens on the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium will be a decisive blow in a battle of opinions over supremacy.
All the World Series can and needs to tell us is which team best survives what has been a season with no shortage of twists and turns.
"It's who is playing well; it's not the name on your chest that gets you there," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "And you still see a lot of the powers that be that make it, but there's not a coach in the country that wouldn't tell you it's getting harder every year."
Georgia is an SEC representative. It's also a collection of 18 freshmen and sophomores playing in the program's first World Series and doing so with better defense than anything Mark Richt can turn out in Athens. Which is the more interesting identity?
Arizona State is a Pac-10 representative. It's also a defending champion trying to win back-to-back national championships with different No. 1 pitchers, this time handing the ball to freshman Hillary Bach, a native of the Sooner State. Which is the more interesting identity?
So it also goes for Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Washington. The World Series won't reveal any grand truths, but it will reveal a champion with a story all its own.
And that will make for a fantastic week of softball.
2. Where did all the strikeouts go?
There have been games at Hall of Fame Stadium during which the fans sitting down the respective baselines had more use for gloves than the players in the field.
For that matter, solitary at-bats have produced more souvenirs for the fans than games have produced fielding chances. Florida's Tiffany DeFelice fouled off 18 pitches in one memorable World Series encounter last season against Louisiana-Lafayette's Ashley Brignac. In that same eight-inning game, the Gators as a whole recorded 15 of their 24 outs at the plate against Brignac by way of the strikeout.
That's the nature of the event, when base hits are typically harder to find than relief from the Oklahoma heat. The spotlight on the game's biggest stage rarely strays from the pitching circle.
And it's possible Washington's Danielle Lawrie and Florida's Stacey Nelson will make this year's event seem like business as usual by the time the championship series rolls around.
The nation's top two pitchers met in one of the season's best games (which wasn't decided until the ninth inning, with the international tiebreaker in effect for extra innings) back in February, when Lawrie's two-hit shutout got the best of Nelson in a 1-0 Washington win in Cathedral City, Calif. Both aces have World Series experience, and it's no stretch to imagine either going on the kind of weeklong run that would trump anything an opposing offense offered en route to a title.
But it's also possible we'll see the scoreboard getting a workout like never before.
The eight teams that advanced to last season's World Series totaled 4,484 strikeouts in 3,563.1 innings pitched during the course of the season, or 1.3 strikeouts per inning pitched. Fast-forward to the present, in which half the eight teams in this year's field -- Arizona, Arizona State, Georgia and Missouri -- will enter play with fewer strikeouts than innings pitched. And the strikeouts per inning for the entire field have slipped from 1.3 to 1.0.
That may not seem like much, but it works out to teams' having to make an additional two outs per game in the field. And under pressure like that in Oklahoma City, even two extra plays per game make it far more likely that a hitter or a fielder will end up with the performance we all recall.
3. Is there a third ace in the deck?
Alabama's Kelsi Dunne made a rather emphatic case for herself during the Tuscaloosa super regional, beating Jacksonville State twice and setting an NCAA tournament record with back-to-back no-hitters (both five innings in run-rule wins).
"Her mix was probably the best she's had in her career," Alabama coach Pat Murphy said of his sophomore ace. "I mean, it's only been two years, but everything was working and just her mix of pitches was tremendous. You've got to credit [pitching coach Vann Stuedeman] for that. And [Dunne] has worked really hard, probably the last month of the season. I think it all came together, and obviously, for 10 innings she was pretty good."
Dunne already has a World Series under her belt after Alabama's four-game stay in Oklahoma City last season. That experience came at the end of a freshman season in which she started a team-high 32 games and struck out 275 batters with a 1.44 ERA.
A mixed bag on the stat sheet, where her strikeout rate is down slightly but her ERA and home runs allowed have increased, Dunne's sophomore season nonetheless has been a generally steady progression in the circle. Where her rise ball might once have determined in large part how a start would unfold, her curveball, screwball and especially changeup are increasingly equal parts of the arsenal, as Jacksonville State learned. Now the focus for the Tide is making sure they don't give any second chances.
"I think when it comes down to crunch time, we've really been trying to preach that there's no freebies on defense -- no walks, no errors, no passed balls, no wild pitches, no stolen bases -- and limit what we give up," Murphy said. "We're going to try to make the opponent earn everything, and she's been doing a really good job of limiting the freebies -- the hit by pitches, the walks -- that she can control. I think it really comes into play in the postseason."
But if the Crimson Tide don't necessarily need Dunne to be another Taryne Mowatt, a continued hot streak wouldn't hurt.
"I think you can look back at every team that's won it the last couple of years, and probably the last decade really, and they always have a hot pitcher," Murphy said. "And we're hoping that she's the one for us, and she keeps it going into the World Series."
4. So if offense rules, who are the five most dangerous hitters in Oklahoma City?
Kaitlin Cochran, Arizona State: At this point, even pitching machines pitch around Cochran. Officially, the Pac-10 Player of the Year has drawn 10 intentional walks. But although she has as good an eye for the strike zone as anyone in the game, her 63 walks in 63 games this season prove how little anyone wants to challenge her. In three career World Series appearances, she's hitting .250 (5-of-20) with 12 walks. Pitch to her at your own peril.
Ashley Charters, Washington: She's one of a trio of Washington stars who wasn't with the team last season, along with Lawrie and shortstop Jenn Salling. But like Lawrie, Charters was a big part of the World Series run in 2007 that ended just shy of the championship series. The hip surgery that kept her out last season hasn't robbed her of the speed that makes her a threat to beat out anything that bounces twice in the infield -- and a threat to slide into third on any of the numerous shots she sends to the gaps.
Stacie Chambers, Arizona: As long as Jessica Mendoza is in the broadcast booth, the Team USA star will be the long-drive champion among those inside Hall of Fame Stadium. But if you put her up against Chambers in a batting-practice exhibition, it probably wouldn't be too difficult to sell some tickets. Chambers, whose 31 home runs are six shy of the NCAA single-season record, had a rough go of it against Stanford in super regional play, going 1-for-10 with three strikeouts. But Cardinal ace Missy Penna had her number all season, and that's not a claim most pitchers are fortunate enough to make.
Charlotte Morgan, Alabama: There's a little bit of Vladimir Guerrero in Morgan's game at the plate. With 40 career home runs and just 43 career strikeouts, she's the rare hitter who can distinguish not only a good pitch from a bad pitch but also a bad pitch she can do something with from a bad pitch she can't do anything with. She's one of only two players to hit home runs off Florida's Stacey Nelson in the past calendar year, and the other, former Louisiana-Lafayette slugger Holly Tankersley, would have made this list last season.
Alisa Goler, Georgia: Most of the hitters on this list strike out about as often as most people pay rent, but compared with Goler, they waste at-bats the way someone driving a Hummer to check the mail wastes gas. The sophomore has faced Lawrie, Dunne, Stephanie Brombacher, Whitney Canion and a host of other strikeout pitchers this season, yet she's walked back to the dugout just four times in 54 games. That's tough enough for a slap hitter picking off bases one at a time, but Goler takes her bases in chunks with a 1.026 slugging percentage.
5. Is Missouri this year's Cindere ?
Stop. Don't finish that thought. Missouri won't live out a fairy tale in the World Series because in reaching the biggest of softball shindigs, one of the nation's most potent offenses is about as far from a pumpkin as it's possible to get.
Perhaps its success is emblematic of the season at large, or maybe the team is just perfectly positioned to reap the benefits of the larger trend. Whatever the case, the stage is set for Missouri to not just reach the World Series for the first time in more than a decade but also stick around Hall of Fame Stadium for more than a cameo appearance.
With the exception of Danielle Lawrie (and granted, that's a monumental exception), what potentially dominant pitching there is in this World Series is mostly concentrated in the other half of the bracket. Obviously, Arizona State is itself doing something right to be here, but the Tigers should get a chance to swing the bats in Thursday's second game, and with a team on-base percentage better than .400 and a slugging percentage hanging around .500, that's something they do exceptionally well.
They also field the ball well behind Chelsea Thomas, Stacy Delaney and Kristin Nottelmann, a trio of pitchers who give coach Ehren Earleywine plenty of options and little reason to panic should the Tigers drop into the loser's bracket at some point during their stay in Oklahoma City.
Missouri is the only unseeded team remaining, but that status is as much a quirk of the bracket as anything else. The Big 12 tournament champions (earned by beating Oklahoma at Hall of Fame Stadium) were ranked in the top 16 in both the RPI and the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 at the conclusion of the regular season and enjoyed arguably a bigger perk than seeding by hosting a regional.
The Tigers might not fit the conventional mold of a World Series team, but it wasn't a magic wand that got them here.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.