WCWS sees return of dominant pitching
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The crowds came in numbers never before seen on the opening day of the Women's College World Series, the abundant orange and crimson on display throughout the afternoon and evening evidence of the drawing power local favorites Oklahoma State and Oklahoma had in their returns to the biggest stage in college softball.
In all, an opening day record of 15,432 passed through the gates of Hall of Fame Stadium, many there to see the "home" teams, even as both the Cowgirls and Sooners technically played the role of visitors in their respective games.
And yet by the time night fell, the most remarkable thing was just how quiet so many people can sound.
It turned out there was a welcome-back party at Hall of Fame Stadium, but it wasn't for the Cowgirls or Sooners. What small pockets of Baylor and Arizona State fans celebrated instead was the return of the pitching and defense that so often dominated the event before a turn for the offensive in recent seasons.
After Alabama used its two aces to outduel California ace Jolene Henderson and set the tone with a 1-0 win in the day's first game, local supporters were left to sit on their hands -- or at least use them more to fan themselves on a stifling day than for applause. First came Baylor ace Whitney Canion going eight innings in a 1-0 win against Oklahoma State, striking out 10 and allowing just three hits while giving her teammates time enough to come up with something like catcher Kelsi Kettler's walk-off home run. What followed from Arizona State freshman ace Dallas Escobedo wasn't quite as precise, but with the help of the nation's best defense behind her, she got out of a handful of jams and was not intimidated by either her surroundings or the opposing lineup in a 3-1 win against Oklahoma.
"When I was walking down from the bullpen at the start of the game, I looked around and I said, 'Wow, this is a really big crowd.' But they weren't as loud as I could have imagined," Escobedo said of the Oklahoma-dominated stands for the second of the day's two sessions. "At home, even, when we played Texas A&M [in a super regional], I felt that was a more crazy atmosphere than we had here."
It wasn't much different earlier in the day.
"I thought the crowd was kind of dead today, to be honest," Baylor coach Glenn Moore said of the Oklahoma State-dominated crowd. "I thought they were waiting for us to make a big play. It was such a pitchers' duel."
That's exactly how Baylor likes it with Canion around. This trip to Oklahoma City marks just the second for the program, the first having come in 2007. But the Bears almost made it back two years ago before an arm injury that was already hindering Canion shut her down for good before the second game of a super regional at Michigan. It then appeared they might have the team to make it back to the World Series last year, when with Canion back in the circle, they beat UCLA and lost by a run against Arizona in an early-season tournament in California. Things fell apart when a stress reaction in her pitching arm shut her down a second time after just 48.2 innings and led to a redshirt season.
"It was very frustrating because I was on an emotional roller coaster," Canion said. "And at that time, in the beginning, I tried to get out of my injury and come back. But then when we just shut it down and [decided] to redshirt, the team really started to struggle, and it felt like without me on the mound, they didn't have that pep in their step, they didn't have that drive. And just every day in practice, just kind of being the ball girl -- almost like the manager in a way because I couldn't practice, that was the most frustrating thing."
As a freshman, Canion was a strikeout machine. She ended that season with 415 of them in 291.1 innings. But she also started posting pitch counts that looked like bowling scores -- frequently topping 120 pitches in a game. That's not as much of a problem in softball as in baseball, but throwing that many pitches, multiplied over the course of nearly 300 innings, take its toll. It also amounts to some wasted energy, as Canion discovered when the injury forced her to sit back and watch.
"Sitting in the dugout all season, watching everything I could -- hitters, defense -- it's matured me so much with the fact that I realized I don't have to strike everybody out," Canion said of 2010. "I need to work on my pitches, and I think that finally hit me last year."
Canion needed 121 pitches to get through eight innings against the Cowgirls, but she more than had the stamina for it, recording two of her strikeouts in the extra frame. She also got some help from the defense she's learned to trust -- Oklahoma State runner Ari Morrison was thrown out at home in the third on a nice relay from outfielder Kayce Walker to first baseman Holly Holl to catcher Kettler.
Escobedo knows just how valuable the defense is behind her, calling it "unstoppable" and "unbreakable" in talking after the game about her desire to pitch to contact. She also caught a break when a potential game-tying home run from Oklahoma's Haley Nix hit the wall for a one-run double instead. But the pitcher who got the best of Keilani Ricketts on this night and in front of this crowd showed herself to be every bit a big-game pitcher, freshman or not.
"She's a beast," junior shortstop Katelyn Boyd said. Boyd gave Escobedo some cushion with a home run, one of just two hit during the first three games played Thursday. "And people say, 'Yeah, she's a freshman; I don't know if she can handle it,' or whatnot, but she's more than capable of handling it. We've seen it all season, down at [University of Arizona in a three-game sweep in the regular season], we've seen it in close games at home. And we are all very proud of her, and we know she's very capable of doing it."
Of course, on a day so many left the park disappointed, not even those who had a hand in the pitching showcase seemed all that satisfied.
Canion hit a pair of home runs in Baylor's super regional win at Georgia and emerged this season as a power threat for the Bears. Against Oklahoma State ace Kat Espinosa, she came up empty in three at-bats and struck out twice.
"I've got to do a better job at the plate tomorrow," Canion said. "I think we all do. We need to score some more runs."
If the first day of the World Series is any indication, not that many more.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
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