The No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners kick off their Women's College World Series Thursday night with an opening round game against the No. 8 Michigan Wolverines. Patty Gasso and company have made the short trip from Norman to Oklahoma City after advancing past Arkansas in their regional and Texas A&M in their super regional. Michigan made the much farther trek after a regional win over California and super regional win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
When you reach this point, you're obviously dealing with the best (and/or hottest) teams in the sport so any one can lose on any given day. Even with as dominant as the Sooners have been all year, this Michigan team is far from a walkover and certainly capable of taking down the top overall seed in Oklahoma.
The Sooners are on the verge of accomplishing something that has never been done before in leading the country in both offense (7.93 runs per game) and pitching (1.16 earned run average). However, Michigan is no slouch in either department with a current standing of 6.90 runs per game and a 2.28 earned run average.
Oklahoma At The Plate
We've talked all year long about how loaded this lineup is from top to bottom, so some of this may be old-hat for a few of you. But for those who are just now tuning in or for our Michigan visitors, we'll give a quick rundown one more time.
On the No. 1 team in the country you might not necessarily be surprised to find a leadoff hitter batting .463 with a .623 on-base percentage and 59 walks in 56 games. What you wouldn't expect from that same leadoff hitter is 27 home runs and 79 runs batted in, but that is why Lauren Chamberlain is regarded as the best hitter in the game.
Georgia Casey, Shelby Pendley, Keilani Ricketts, and Jessica Shults combine to form what has to arguably be one of the best top five of any lineup in the history of the sport. Casey can hit to all fields and capable of producing some power. Pendley was this year's Big 12 Player of the Year and has a little bit of power in her own right with 23 home runs and 73 runs batted in on the season. Ricketts can swing late, one handed, and still send the ball over the fence with plenty of room to spare. Oh, and Shults is the current Big 12 career home runs leader.
But what makes this lineup so special is that it isn't just one or two (or five) players, they have legitimate threats literally from the one through nine hole. The bottom half of their lineup has been just as critical to this team's success as the top half. Between Destinee Martinez, Callie Parsons, and Brianna Turang constantly setting up the top half by consistently getting on base by any means necessary.
Oklahoma In The Circle
Fresh off her second consecutive National Player of the Year Award, Ricketts stands alone as the most dominant player in the sport. And we say sport because as we just finished describing, she isn't simply limited to the pitching circle. Her ability as a two-way player, and an elite one at that, separates her from virtually every one of her peers.
Between what this team is player for in representing their still recovering state and the indisputable lingering disappointment of last year's championship final, Ricketts and her teammates are on a mission to bring home the ultimate prize this season.
An intimidating presence in the circle at over six feet tall, Ricketts will routinely reach 70 plus miles per hour on the radar gun. And when she has her change-up working in the mid-fifties she becomes virtually unhittable.
The key for her, as with most pitchers, is to avoid the free passes. If she is walking batters it could be a long night. The poor outing is typically an exception for her, but contrary to popular belief she is human and prone to the occasional bad performance.
However, much like with their lineup the difference in this year's team is that they have a pitcher behind Ricketts who would be a No. 1 starter on just about any other team in the country. In fact, Michelle Gascoigne actually finished the season with a better earned run and strikeouts per seven inning averages. The senior has been called on in relief of Ricketts multiple times this past season and often times in very difficult circumstance. If needed, she will be ready and there is very little drop off between the two lefty aces.
Michigan At The Plate
Much like with the Oklahoma lineup and Lauren Chamberlain, the starting point for this Michigan team is almost just as obvious. Freshman shortstop Sierra Romero is the proverbial 'straw that stirs the drink' for the Wolverines finishing her season with a .383 batting average, 22 home runs, and 69 runs batted in. She is as good in the field as she is at the plate and one of the game's future stars.
Second baseman Ashley Lane combines with Romero for one of the country's most powerful middle infields. Lane finished the season with a .371 batting average, 18 home runs, and 60 runs batted in.
While no lineup can compare top to bottom with that of Oklahoma, the Wolverines go a legit seven deep when it comes to producing runs. They present a challenging combination of both power and the traditional slap-hitters with speed to force defenses into fielding errors.
Thus far in the postseason they have struggled somewhat to score runs at the same pace with which they did in the regular season. Obviously a part of that has been a step up in competition and pitching, but neither of those things is going to change Thursday night when they take on the Sooners.
Michigan In The Circle
In another similarity to Oklahoma, this Michigan team is bringing two quality pitchers to Oklahoma City as well. Sophomores Sara Driesenga and Haylie Wagner are pretty much interchangeable as the team's No. 1 starter. Driesenga lead Michigan to their super regional win over Louisiana-Lafayette, but she wasn't actually the intended starter of that game. The plan was for Wagner to start, but she experienced some shoulder discomfort in the bullpen warming up and head coach Carol Hutchins chose to sub in Driesenga.
It remains to be seen whether or not Wagner's apparent injury will prevent her from pitching Thursday night or at all this weekend. However, as we've described, it's not as though her injury forces an inexperienced or incapable starter into an unfamiliar position.
That said, if Driesenga does wind up starting and Oklahoma can get to her early it could play in the Sooners favor if Wagner is not available.