- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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With little more than a month to play in the season, no team in college softball is closer to perfection than the University of Texas, separated from a spotless record through 37 games by nothing more substantial than one-run losses to Florida, Fordham and LSU more than a month ago.
So it says something about just how good the Big 12 is this season, its final season as currently constituted, that the Longhorns came within three runs of three losses in the past week alone.
It also says something about the emerging resiliency of a team for which that trait was probably the biggest, if not the only, question mark entering the season after last spring's abrupt postseason exit.
Wrapping up a stretch of five games in nine days against ranked conference opponents, a run that began with two comfortable wins at Oklahoma State last week, Texas won a 4-3 decision in a midweek rivalry game against Texas A&M and swept two weekend games at Nebraska, winning 1-0 on Saturday and 4-3 on Sunday. In doing so, the Longhorns also doubled their all-time win total in Lincoln, improving to 4-7 at Nebraska in their last trip north before the Cornhuskers move to the Big Ten.
In each of the week's games, the Longhorns came to the plate in the seventh inning without possession of the lead. In each instance, a different player hit a home run to tie the game or secure the lead.
Against Texas A&M, junior first baseman Lexy Bennett's leadoff home run tied the game in the bottom of the seventh, and freshman pinch runner Mandy Ogle scored the winner on a wild pitch later in the inning. In the opening game against Nebraska, senior catcher Amy Hooks led off the top of the seventh with a home run (with an assist after the ball caromed off Nebraska outfielder Nikki Haget's glove and over the fence) to break a scoreless tie. And in Sunday's finale, sophomore outfielder Taylor Hoagland hit a two-out, two-run home run to tie the game at 3 in the seventh inning.
Hoagland's blast set the stage for Hooks to steal home with the go-ahead run in the next inning after an attempted squeeze play went awry with the bases loaded and one out.
"I saw [the coach] give the squeeze signal, and my heart was pounding," Hooks said of the moments before she picked up her seventh steal in 200 career games. "I'm not a speedster, so I was pretty nervous. Then when I saw that we didn't execute the bunt and I'm halfway down the line, I knew I was going to have to try something. But I also knew I had two people behind me that were in scoring position, so I could try to make the most of it and we still had runners on."
Caught between third base and home, she got that chance when the initial throw went to third, giving her enough time to become the rare catcher who steals that which she defends.
"I kind of looked up and saw all the dust and saw [the umpire] say safe, and I was pretty excited," Hooks said. "I don't even remember after that; I felt like my whole team picked me up after I slid. It was pretty fun going back in the dugout after that."
It's no slight to say Texas made use of some good fortune to come away with both wins at Nebraska -- more often than not, a case could be made that great teams are very good teams that catch the right breaks. But there's also something to be said for putting yourself in position to benefit from good breaks, and no player in burnt orange embodies that more than Hooks. A four-year starter who calls her own pitches behind the plate, like Megan Willis before her on that count, she's gone from a freshman who hit .193 to one of the Big 12's most disciplined hitters. She has just four strikeouts in 126 plate appearances this season, and as her 1.102 OPS suggests, she's not just swinging for singles.
"I really, honestly believe that catching every game and catching in practice helps me see the ball better just because I see so many pitches a day," Hooks said of her batting eye. "I'm catching them, I'm seeing hitters swing, and so I think that just helps me in tracking the ball a little bit better. It was a goal of mine. To me, if you can make contact and put the ball in play, you're helping your team out because you're forcing the other team to make a play."
In addition to Saturday's home run and Sunday's stolen base after a leadoff double, it was Hooks who drew the walk that led to Ogle's pinch running and scoring against the Aggies. The origins of her particular plate discipline may be unique to her position, but with a team on-base percentage that's second in the Big 12 (against a much more rigorous schedule than leader Texas Tech), the Longhorns give themselves plenty of chances to convert good fortune into runs.
The Longhorns aren't too bad at making the plays, either. They committed one error in their three games last week, giving them 15 this season and the best fielding percentage in the nation. And while All-American Blaire Luna is a strikeout pitcher, she's not striking batters out at the same rate as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott or other pitchers whose power skewed the fielding numbers behind them.
To still be perfect in a league that had eight ranked teams in last week's poll, perhaps you've got to be a little lucky. As Texas continues to show, you've also got to be good enough to make use of it.
Elsewhere in the Big 12
Texas had some company in making an early break from a very good and very large pack. Missouri improved to 7-1 in the league by sweeping two games at home from Texas A&M. Chelsea Thomas picked up both wins, including a nine-strikeout shutout in Sunday's 3-0 win, and has now pitched more total innings than any other Big 12 pitcher in conference play. Yet the 129 pitches she threw in Saturday's 6-3 win marked only the time in eight conference appearances she needed as many as 120 pitches.
Oklahoma will get the next shot at Missouri on Sunday (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET). The Sooners, who also have a midweek Bedlam visit from Oklahoma State, are coming off their third split in four conference series after a win and a loss against Baylor. Sooners ace Keilani Ricketts seemed headed for back-to-back wins in Sunday's finale, but after Baylor rallied for a tying run in the sixth, a passed ball on a third strike opened the door for three unearned runs and a 5-2 win for the Bears.
LSU takes down No. 1
The SEC race was thrown wide-open in the quirkiest of ways, with Alabama losing in 14 innings and 10 innings in the first two games of a series against LSU in Baton Rouge in marathons that proved mere prelude to the Crimson Tide's no-hitting the Tigers in the finale -- and nonetheless losing for a third day in a row. It was an entirely forgettable weekend for the nation's top-ranked team (a label it's now sure to lose), but it was one to remember for a long time for a Tigers team that has gone from fighting through a tough season marked by injuries and the surprise announcement that legendary coach Yvette Girouard would step down at the end of the campaign to surging back into the SEC race with eight conference wins in a row.
Anissa Young provided the runs needed in the first two wins with a pair of walk-off home runs. No LSU player is hitting .300 this season, but Young's 1.057 OPS suggests she's as valuable to her team as any other offensive player in the league. Brittany Mack certainly gave all of her teammates plenty of time to come through for her at the plate. The junior pitcher threw 234 pitches in going all 14 innings of the opening game, striking out 14 and allowing just one run in the 2-1 win. And with all of a day's rest, she came back Sunday and threw a two-hit shutout in LSU's 2-0 win to clinch the sweep.
Bothered by stress fractures her first two seasons, Mack is now 10-3 with a 2.11 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 96 innings.
"There's no question she has all the talent in the world," Girouard said before the season. "We just can't keep her healthy."
As Alabama will attest, so far, so good on that count for the Tigers.
As a result of the events in Baton Rouge, Tennessee's two-game midweek sweep at Georgia and three-game weekend sweep at Ole Miss gave it sole possession of first place in the SEC East and a share of the overall lead with Alabama. A win in Sunday's finale also gave co-coach Ralph Weekly career win No. 1,000. (The next win by the Lady Vols will be No. 500 for both Ralph and co-coach Karen Weekly with the program.) Having accumulated just 25 at-bats entering the week, freshman Melissa Davin totaled seven hits and six RBIs in five starts and 14 at-bats against the Bulldogs and Rebels.
Drama spanned both coasts over the weekend, led on the Pac-10 stage by Stanford winning two of three against UCLA, the Cardinal's first series win in four years against the Bruins. Stanford sophomore Teagan Gerhart threw 231 pitches in 13 innings of work in a 6-5 loss to open the series, but after getting most of Saturday off (she threw a little more than an inning in relief in a 6-2 win), she clinched the series with a five-hit complete game effort in Sunday's 5-1 victory. Freshman Danielle Miller drove in six of the Cardinal's 11 runs in the two wins.
Rough stretches are a way of life in the Pac-10, but with road trips to Arizona, UCLA and Stanford looming the next three weekends (followed by Arizona State visiting Seattle), Washington badly needed the series win it got against California. Freshman Kaitlin Inglesby improved to 17-2 as the pitcher of record in Sunday's 9-1 romp, but the win she earned by going all eight innings without allowing an earned run in Saturday's 2-1 victory may loom large for the Huskies down the road.
In what has to rank as a surprise, Hawaii and Fresno State are looking up at New Mexico State and Boise State in the WAC standings. New Mexico State junior Tiare Jennings was named WAC player of the week after hitting four home runs in four games, including big hits in helping the Aggies take two of three from Fresno State. That matches the number of all-time wins New Mexico State had in 31 previous meetings between the teams.
Ricketts is the obvious choice when it comes to the best pitcher in Oklahoma, but a race that already included Oklahoma State's Kat Espinosa has added another challenger in the form of Tulsa freshman Aimee Creger. (And outside of the usual suspects like California and Texas, try coming up with a state that has a better trio representing three schools.) Creger improved to 15-1 with a 0.95 ERA on the season in the opening game of Tulsa's three-game sweep against Southern Miss over the weekend, going all seven innings and striking out 10 against two walks and five hits. Given geography and Tulsa's 32-9 record, including 13-2 in Conference USA, there's reason to think she may end up starting a regional game on the Sooners' home field in Norman. But after outdueling Ricketts in a 1-0 win at home on March 23, that sort of in-state showdown probably won't scare the Oklahoma City native.
It's a nice achievement for any player to move within three home runs of the career record at a school, especially a school that has played Division I softball since 1977. But it's double-take material when the player in question has yet to complete her freshman season. San Diego State freshman Lorena Klopp did just that with a three-run home run, her second of the day, to put the exclamation point on a seven-run seventh inning in her team's 15-11 win at Colorado State on Saturday. Klopp has 14 home runs this season, double the previous single-season record for a program that plays in a stadium just about as conducive to power as the Padres' notoriously pitcher-friendly Petco Park. A .316 on-base percentage suggests there may still be some holes in Klopp's overall offensive game (she is, after all, just 107 at-bats into her college career), but the power surge is a boon for an Aztecs team that has won 13 games in a row.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
Texas has been lucky and good in remaining perfect in the Big 12. And as the Longhorns showed in the past week, being resilient doesn't hurt, either.