A pessimist might claim No. 11 LSU's weekend sweep of No. 24 Florida (38-22, 14-13) demonstrated the lengths the Tigers (48-9, 21-6) must sometimes go to scratch out wins when Emily Turner isn't in the circle. An optimist, however, would surely counter that the three-game series in Baton Rouge, La., was evidence of a spirit resilient enough to make this a team of destiny.
Florida coach Tim Walton would probably just sigh and mutter something that couldn't be printed.
On paper, Turner again starred for the Tigers, throwing two shutouts to lower her ERA to 0.59, which would break the school's single-season record if she keeps it there. But it was the events of the final climatic inning of Saturday's second game that stole the show and kept alive LSU's dreams of an SEC regular-season championship.
As Saturday's second game entered the bottom of the seventh inning, Florida owned a 6-3 lead after touching LSU No. 2 hurler Dani Hofer for a pair of three-run home runs. Mere minutes later, Florida's Walton and volunteer assistant Jeff Dabney were sneaking peaks from outside the stadium as LSU's Killian Roessner laced an RBI single to cap a four-run rally that gave the Tigers an improbable and controversial 7-6 win.
The events of the intervening minutes included one of the stranger plays of the season, sparking dissent from both benches and ultimately leading to the ejections of Walton and Dabney. With one out and the bases loaded, Florida third baseman Brooke Johnson fielded a grounder off the bat of Leslie Klein and fired home to try and force pinch runner Dee Dee Henderson at the plate. Catcher Kristen Butler appeared to bobble the low throw before coming up with the ball, but the home plate umpire called Henderson out on the force.
Television replays didn't offer a conclusive view of whether or not the ball came out of Butler's glove as Henderson crossed the plate, but after LSU coach Yvette Girouard came out to argue the call, a discussion between the umpiring crew resulted in the original out call being reversed. Instead of two outs and their three-run lead intact, the Gators had just one out and a two-run lead. Perhaps not surprisingly, Walton lost his cool after seeing momentum snatched away from his team and was quickly booted, leading to his knothole-gang vantage point for the final runs.
Whether or not the reversal was the correct decision is something we'll likely never know, but in having the opportunity to rally for the win, the Tigers really did show both the glass-half-full and glass-half-empty sides of their quest for a national championship.
Turner's shutout innings were all the more impressive because, at least in Saturday's opener, she wasn't necessarily at her best (talk about a scary thought for future opponents). Battling tough weather conditions with heavy wind, LSU's ace walked four and had to deal with runners on base in most innings. But every time Turner needed a big out, she seemed to leave the Gators befuddled by her changeup. Another SEC Pitcher of the Week award may help change matters, but Turner still seems to get left out of the conversation too often when the conversation turns to the top pitchers in the nation.
The problem for LSU is that Hofer, Turner's partner in the circle, is making the junior look even more valuable by continuing to pitch through a roller-coaster freshman season. Last year's Gatorade Player of the Year in high school, Hofer presents Girouard with a perplexing conundrum. She's far too talented to sit in favor of Megan Jolly, but she may be too enigmatic to be counted upon in the postseason.
But as the seventh inning proved, the Tigers at least have the offensive balance to make up for youthful mistakes. Lauren Delahoussaye is the only regular currently hitting worse than .262, and even she is hitting .306 (15-49) with runners in scoring position. Unlike a lot of other good teams -- even national contenders -- the Tigers don't have an easy out in the batting order. So it was on Saturday, when singles from Roessner and Quinlan Duhon (sixth and seventh in the order) made the umpiring reversal more than a footnote.
All things considered, winning one out of three games at No. 11 Georgia (49-12, 23-6) isn't a terrible result for No. 6 Tennessee (48-7, 19-7), especially considering the win was a 12-0 run-rule victory and the two losses were hard-fought contests. But the Lady Volunteers lost the luxury of looking at the big picture, at least in relation to the SEC, by struggling early in the conference schedule. Thus the Bulldogs -- currently ranked behind Tennessee, Alabama (44-8, 22-4) and LSU in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 -- clinched the SEC East and kept alive hopes of an outright conference regular season crown.
The 21 runs they allowed against Tennessee were further proof the Bulldogs don't have an ace in the circle, but they do have about as dangerous a heart of the order as there is in the country. After seizing a 5-2 leading in the bottom of the sixth inning of Sunday's finale against Tennessee, Georgia saw the Lady Vols respond with four runs in the top of the seventh to reclaim the lead. Big deal? Not when they can get to the middle of the order, as Jessica Doucette made up for some of her own pitching mistakes with a game-winning RBI single with the bases loaded.
Life might be easier with a shut-down ace, but there's something to be said for making the opposing team's ace sweat for all seven innings.
LSU is still alive in the SEC race after sweeping Florida, but it's tenuous place in the pennant race after Alabama won two games against Mississippi State (30-28, 4-22) on Saturday (Sunday's third game was rained out and will not be rescheduled). With just next weekend's series at Arkansas remaining in the regular season, the Crimson Tide continue quietly going about their business.
Clinching the conference regular season title would have been the icing on the cake, but No. 14 Northwestern (36-11, 14-3) did exactly what it needed to do in its four-game road swing through Michigan over the weekend. By sweeping the Michigan State Spartans (34-22, 9-9) and splitting Sunday's doubleheader with the defending national champs, the No. 13 Michigan Wolverines (34-13, 12-4), the Wildcats moved to within a win (or a Michigan loss) of capturing their first conference title under coach Kate Drohan.
The Wolverines went for broke, starting ace Jennie Ritter in both ends of the doubleheader, but Northwestern scratched out two runs in the first inning of the first game and rode Eileen Canney's pitching to a 2-1 win. And while Ritter continues to shine, throwing her second shutout of the weekend in the second game (she allowed just eight hits in 21 innings), the Wolverines are struggling to put up runs at anything like last year's championship pace. They're averaging just 4.3 runs per game this season, down nearly a run and a half from last season, even before the normal postseason squeeze on scoring.
To close out the regular season next weekend, the Wildcats travel to Illinois (24-28, 8-9) for two games, while the Wolverines host Michigan State for a pair. Anything less than sweeps by both the Illini and Wolverines will mean second place for Michigan.
Runs were still at a premium for the No. 2 Texas Longhorns (48-5, 14-2) -- they've scored more than three runs in a game just once in seven games since exploding for nine runs against Oklahoma on April 14 -- but there is no arguing with the result: another Big 12 regular season title. Texas clinched the crown by sweeping Oklahoma State (19-27, 5-13) this weekend. And if Cat Osterman keeps pitching this way, then runs may not matter. Osterman struck out 33 batters in 15 innings of shutout work against the Cowboys, improving to a staggering 32-1, with a 0.28 ERA and 492 strikeouts in 224 innings.
While the Longhorns are locked in as the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, a battle is raging for the second seed (the top two seeds have the potential to earn byes on the second day of play in the conference tourney). No. 17 Texas A&M (32-15, 11-6) is out of the mix after losing to No. 16 Nebraska (38-8, 11-4) on Saturday, but a rain cancellation of Sunday's games between the Cornhuskers and Aggies complicated the conference picture. Nebraska has two games remaining against Missouri (23-23, 7-9), while No. 18 Baylor (36-17, 12-5) has a single game against Texas, who could choose to rest Osterman in a meaningless game for the Longhorns.
The Bears put themselves in the mix at the top of the standings by sweeping two games against Iowa State (23-25, 5-11), their fifth consecutive win in the conference and eighth overall. Whatever happens in the standings battle with Nebraska, Baylor is assured its best ever finish in conference play. And perhaps it was fitting that the Bears secured the win on Senior Day without needing to be carried by departing legend Kelly Osburn. While Osburn contributed a key RBI on a squeeze play, the program she helped lift from newborn (Baylor started playing softball again in 1996) to adolescence proved it now has the depth around her to compete at the top of the conference, with junior stars like Lisa Ferguson, Chelsi Lake and Ashley Monceaux.
The second player in Big 12 history to accumulate 200 hits, 150 runs, 30 home runs, 100 RBI, 75 steals and 100 walks (not that anyone's counting), Osburn is doing her part by hitting .333 with 13 home runs, 34 RBI and 14 steals this year. All of the numbers are remarkable, and none more than the last figure because Osburn tore her ACL during the NCAA tournament last season.
N.C. State (44-18, 14-6) claimed the ACC regular season title, taking two games from second-place North Carolina (46-15, 13-7). It's an interesting conclusion to the regular season that has struggled to produce a team capable of gaining traction on the national scene. The Wolfpack garnered only five votes in last week's Top 25, putting them behind ACC rivals No. 21 North Carolina, No. 25 Virginia Tech (36-15, 12-8) and Georgia Tech (eight votes). Hitting just .237 as a team, N.C. State has gotten it done thanks to the pitching tandem of Abbie Sims (21-11, 1.69 ERA) and Shaina Ervin (16-3, 1.68 ERA). Each picked up a win in the two-game set against North Carolina. The conference did post some noteworthy wins early in the season (North Carolina beating Georgia, Virginia Tech beating Arizona State, and Georgia Tech beating Baylor before splitting with Georgia), but there doesn't appear to be a lot of momentum heading into May. It will be worth watching the conference tournament to see whether the Wolfpack or another team can get on a roll.
After splitting a pair of games with Notre Dame (34-15, 14-2) on Saturday, South Florida (42-21, 14-2) put some pressure on the Irish by sweeping DePaul (27-19, 9-9) on Sunday. Notre Dame's doubleheader against No. 22 Louisville (33-8, 11-3) was postponed by rain, and the teams will play on Monday. Louisville was the only Big East team in the rankings last week (DePaul received two votes), but it's the Irish and Bulls who have dominated conference play. With Monday's schedule virtually to themselves, the Irish may have a chance to convince voters they're the Big East team deserving of national recognition.
Hofstra (32-15, 13-4) took two of three games from Drexel (17-27, 6-11) over the weekend, moving the Pride's magic number to two in the quest for yet another Colonial Athletic Association regular season title (they've won the regular season and conference tournament titles each year since moving from America East in 2002). Pitcher Courtney Oliver tossed a no-hitter in Sunday's 8-0 run-rule victory, and senior second baseman Lisa Wambold celebrated Senior Day by breaking the school's record for steals in a career (52). With UNC Wilmington (11-10, 12-6) and Georgia State (23-26, 12-6) nipping at their spikes, the Pride will look to close the deal at Delaware (31-19, 8-9) next weekend.
The Red Sox may get all the attention in Massachusetts with this week's two-game series against the Yankees, but those guys are loafers compared to the UMass (37-16, 14-2) softball team. Holding a narrow lead over Charlotte (38-11, 13-3), Temple (20-21, 12-4) and St. Bonaventure (19-19, 11-5) in the Atlantic 10, UMass will play eight games this week, beginning with Monday's doubleheader against Rhode Island (20-23, 8-9). It's a lot to ask for a team led by two freshmen, but it's also a chance for them to make a name for themselves. Freshman third baseman Whitney Mollica (who has a Sox connection as the grandaughter of former Sox skipper Don Zimmer) leads the team with a .414 batting average, 10 home runs and 50 RBI. And freshman Brandice Balschmiter is 22-7 and ranks among NCAA leaders with a 0.63 ERA.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.