Fearsome foursome do battle
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Parity's day may be coming in college softball. It just won't be Friday.
And if the two games fans have waited all season to see live up to the billing, that's not a bad thing for the sport.
The top four seeds opened the Women's College World Series with wins Thursday, setting up one winner's bracket game Friday between No. 1 California and No. 4 Oklahoma (7 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN3) followed by No. 2 Alabama versus No. 3 Arizona State (9:30 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN3). Thursday's losing teams will get the day off before playing for their softball lives Saturday.
The stage, for now, belongs to the four championship favorites.
Friday will mark the first time since the NCAA tournament was reconfigured in 2005 to include the super regional round and a best-of-three championship series that the top four seeds will meet. While Saturday and Sunday offer the potential for as many as eight games and plenty of redemption, the championship picture will begin to take shape Friday night. Of the 14 teams that have played for a championship since 2005, 11 got there after opening the WCWS with back-to-back wins.
All four favorites spent the first day of play in Oklahoma City demonstrating why there appeared to be a divide between them and the rest of the field. As in the case of Cal, which trailed LSU 2-0 after two innings before rallying for a 5-3 win, it wasn't done by steamrolling the opposition. All four seeds were challenged. All four answered.
"This team fights until the end, and I think you saw that today," Cal senior Frani Echavarria said after driving in three runs in her team's comeback. "Everyone pulled together, and even when some of us couldn't get it done, the next person handed the bat over or made the next play, and we got it done as a team -- a total team effort today."
Cal does have a lot of fight, but it probably doesn't have more than LSU, just as Arizona State didn't want to win Thursday's finale any more than Oregon did. What the Bears and Sun Devils have, like the Crimson Tide and Sooners, are better players stepping up to make the next play Echavarria talked about.
For Alabama, it was a four-run first inning against Tennessee in which the Crimson Tide loaded the bases on an infield single, a walk and an error, which was followed by a three-run double from Cassie Reilly-Boccia, the senior who was hitting cleanup for the first time this season. For Arizona State, it was seven strong innings from sophomore Dallas Escobedo in the circle against Oregon and a brilliant play in the game's final moments by freshman third baseman Haley Steele to erase a rare defensive miscue by the Sun Devils.
In California's case, it was a lack of errors in the field, minimizing the damage LSU could do with eight hits and three walks against Jolene Henderson. And for Oklahoma against South Florida, it was three hitters in the middle of the order who are simply better than any other trio here.
It's hard to make a case that any of the losing teams played significantly below their abilities. The difference is that while the four teams that advanced are stronger in some areas than others, they aren't hiding any glaring weaknesses. South Florida has to hope it can manufacture enough offense. LSU and Oregon are sometimes undone by defensive miscues. Tennessee lacks the top-to-bottom lineup power to dig out of holes. Teams can win a lot of games in the regular season by relying on their strengths. They tend to lose in Oklahoma City because of their weaknesses.
"You hope that you have all your bases covered, whatever position it might be or whatever facet of the game it is," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "Here it's pretty much everybody is pretty good and they're here for a reason, and they probably don't have many holes to begin with."
The result sets the stage for two potential classics Friday.
The names on the front of the jerseys suggest the game between Cal and Oklahoma is an intersectional rivalry between the Big 12 and Pac-12. The rosters say otherwise. Six of Oklahoma's likely starters are Californians, including the big three of USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Keilani Ricketts, first baseman Lauren Chamberlain and catcher Jessica Shults. Ricketts' closest competition for player of the year was likely Cal first baseman Valerie Arioto, setting up as good an individual battle as we've seen in Oklahoma City since Natasha Watley scored the winning run for UCLA to help eliminate Texas in 2003 after Watley lost out to Longhorns ace Cat Osterman for national individual honors.
Ricketts continues to overpower batters in the postseason, adding 11 strikeouts against just one walk in Thursday's win against South Florida. And Cal, for everything else it does so well in power and the short game, led the Pac-12 in strikeouts.
Alabama and Arizona State meet for the fourth time in the WCWS, with all four meetings occurring since 2008. Both teams blend speed and power, and both make pitchers work -- Arizona State is the only team left in the tournament with more walks than strikeouts on the season.
There's no secret that Alabama will throw sophomore Jackie Traina, but the Sun Devils have a more difficult choice. Escobedo hasn't allowed an earned run in her past two starts, Thursday against Oregon and the super regional clincher against Louisiana-Lafayette, but Hillary Bach also has WCWS experience. She started and won a game in the super regional and is much less susceptible to the long ball than Escobedo, no small consideration against a Crimson Tide lineup that is among the national leaders in home runs.
For softball fans, this is the place to be. Thursday's two-session attendance of 16,384 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium was just 1,819 short of the crowd for Game 3 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs a few miles away. Friday's single session sold out well in advance, leaving fans to scramble for a few standing-room-only tickets that will be released the day of play.
Maybe this won't be the best tournament ever. Perhaps none of the stars on hand will eventually rank among the sport's immortals. What isn't debatable is that between the credentials of the teams on the field and the number of people watching them, Friday will be a day unlike any other in the WCWS.
Asked about her particular challenge for the day, Echavarria could only smile.
"Ricketts, she's a baller," Echavarria said of Oklahoma's ace. "But I'm excited to compete against the best."
Cinderella slippers will be in short supply Friday night in Oklahoma City, but there will be no shortage of the best.