LSU breaks through Mizzou
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- If LSU wasn't the most frustrated lineup in the country when the NCAA tournament began, it wasn't for lack of opportunity.
No team entered the tournament averaging fewer runs per game, and four consecutive one-run losses in the final series of the regular season and a short stay in the conference tournament only underscored the issue.
LSU was the team that could pitch just well enough to almost beat anyone. And the team that couldn't close the deal at the plate against too many opponents.
How times change.
Now one win away from the World Series, LSU wasn't even the most frustrated lineup in the stadium Saturday after a 6-1 win against No. 9 Missouri in the opening game of the best-of-three series. Not only did LSU's offense steal the spotlight from Rachele Fico, its own ace who most figured would need to be perfect for her team to have any chance at an upset, but it turned perhaps the best pure pitcher in the country into a question mark for Sunday.
There may be no stranger statement written about this postseason than that the tournament's weakest offense knocked Chelsea Thomas out of the circle.
"I feel like our team was very prepared tonight," LSU coach Beth Torina said."We worked really hard this week doing a lot of things with our offense. I feel really good about the preparation we did and I feel really good about the offense that showed up today."
Facing a pitcher in Thomas who limited opponents to a .159 batting average entering the super regional, LSU appeared to squander the kind of scoring opportunity it didn't figure to see often. A.J. Andrews led off the game with a single, and Simone Heyward followed with a walk. When a throw got away from Missouri catcher Jenna Marston on an ensuing double-steal attempt, LSU had runners on second and third with no outs. But Thomas struck out Ashley Langoni to conclude a nine-pitch at-bat, and a squeeze went for naught when third baseman Nicole Hudson made a sensational play, charging Juliana Santos' bunt and flipping the ball home with her gloved hand.
Another strikeout ended the inning without a run, but rather than a missed opportunity, LSU found it wasn't helpless against Thomas. Instead of thinking it was in for more of the same frustration after a streak of 14 games in which it scored more than two runs just once (and that was a 4-3 loss in extra innings), LSU scored two runs when the top of the order came up again in the third inning.
It was a rally that looked better in the box score than it did at the time -- a bloop single by Allison Falcon fell between hesitant fielders in short center plating both runs after two walks and a single set the table -- but it was a rally, and it gave Fico the rare luxury of breathing room.
LSU was hardly prolific last week in sweeping to a regional win at Texas A&M, riding the pitching of Fico and Brittany Mack more than anything, but it looked better at the plate in those games than the team Torina admitted had gotten into its own head by the end of the regular season.
"More than needing talented hitters, you need kids with strong mentality because you just get beat down every day," Torina said of the effect of conference play, rattling off the names of half a dozen aces on other SEC teams."Every team we go to has an All-American it seems like. So to keep your mentality of understanding that you have to fail a lot, a lot more than you're going to succeed, is really tough. And I think that's where we were."
That continued Saturday -- LSU didn't look like a great offensive team, but it looked like one that believed it could be good.
After Missouri cut its deficit to a single run in the fourth inning on the strength of a leadoff double from Nicole Hudson, a player for the home team who deserved a better fate on the night, LSU responded with three runs in the top of the fifth to chase Thomas. It again wasn't a work of art, the runs coming on two walks, two singles and two hit batters, but it added up to five runs against a pitcher who allowed just one earned run in 22 innings in this season's tournament.
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine tilted the scale of cause and effect toward his own starting pitcher after the game. He noted the opposing Tigers benefitted from all those "freebies," with the final tally at six walks and two hit batters in five innings on a night Thomas acknowledged as the worst performance of her college career.
"They hit one ball on the barrel against Chelsea," Earleywine said.
He wasn't off by much. Most of LSU's good contact came after Thomas was out of the game, but there is a flip side to those walks. With a trip to the World Series within reach and under the eye of all those television cameras, the natural instinct for a group of hitters aware of their own offensive weaknesses might reasonably be for them to be more aggressive, to try and make something happen on any pitch that looks remotely reachable.
Thomas beat herself, to be sure, but LSU didn't get in her way. And while not as impressive as hitting one of Thomas' pitches over the fence, maintaining plate discipline on this stage and against this pitcher deserves credit.
"I throw a lot of BP to them, and we work on it a lot, about what are strikes and what are balls," Torina said."It's something we actually spend a lot of hours with our practice time doing. It's not something that just comes by luck. It's something that we practice a lot, being disciplined and making sure we swing at strikes."
It was a night of such role reversals that it was Fico, who allowed just the one run and still saw her ERA rise, that Earleywine singled out as a potential weak link. Missouri's coach said his team had her largely figured out by the third inning, its eight hits and stranded runners a better future indicator than the final score. And whether or not it's Fico or Brittany Mack who starts Sunday's first game, Missouri will have to face Fico at some point if it is to win two games and return to Oklahoma City.
"All things considered, going into tomorrow, if she throws again, I like our chances," Earleywine said. "Ten runners left on base? We'll see what happens."
Earleywine chalked up much of his ace's ineffectiveness to the heat, which registered 91 degrees when the game began and felt even more oppressive with the humidity. He hoped a different dugout (teams flip after the first day of super regional play) and other preventative measures would help her Sunday, when she'll likely need to pitch at least 14 innings during daylight hours if the Tigers are to advance. He also said that if she pitches "even average softball" he believes his team can win.
One night of run production isn't going to win LSU's offense many converts, let alone the ever-confident coach of the opposing team. Thomas is exactly the kind of pitcher who can do what will be asked of her Sunday.
But one game has LSU one win from Oklahoma City.
"If you tell them they can't do something, they're going to do everything they can to prove you wrong," Torina said. "I've seen teams be the other way, and they kind of get beat down by what people say. But these kids play in Tiger Park every day and they have all these fans and a lot of people on them to be great and to be better, and I think these kids just get fired up by any of that stuff."