Sooners' Ricketts calling the shots

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Keilani Ricketts didn't call any shots Friday night in ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, but wait a few decades and there will be people in these parts who swear that at one point the Oklahoma All-American stood in the circle and pointed to the spot behind home plate where the ball would come to rest once it made its way past a helpless batter.

The legend will grow to outsized proportions if the coming days play out in the manner that is within reach for a team now one win away from the championship series. For a player compared this week to Babe Ruth by South Florida coach Ken Eriksen, who doubles as her coach on the United States national team, reality was sufficiently larger than life on this night.

With Ricketts throwing a two-hit shutout and matching her season high with 16 strikeouts, No. 4 Oklahoma beat No. 1 California, 3-0. What began as a pitching duel between two of the best pitchers of the moment became an audition for a spot in a different club. Ricketts wasn't just good; she was good in a way that pitchers like Danielle Lawrie, Alicia Hollowell and Lisa Fernandez were good here.

Ricketts pitched as well as it's possible to pitch. Again.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Oklahoma pitcher Keilani Ricketts struck out 16 and allowed just two hits against California.

Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said after the game that it was the best she had ever seen her junior ace, then qualified the thought by noting it was on par with her performance in the super regional against Arizona. The truth is that as good as Ricketts was Friday night, she has been that good for some time. In the postseason, she is 7-0 with a 0.16 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 45 innings.

"Keilani has gone to another level," Gasso said. "[She] just really knows now how to get locked in like never before and not let things really affect her. And I've seen her really step up in clutch situations -- they had runners in scoring position -- and to find her way out of it. She's been doing that all year long, over and over. It's almost like she loves the challenge.

"But to see her become truly one of the best, it's been an absolute pleasure to watch."

This was supposed to be the next chapter in a rivalry between Ricketts and Cal's Jolene Henderson that dates to well before college, to the days when they matched up as prep stars in Northern California for Archbishop Mitty and Sheldon high schools, respectively. Ricketts was the prep national player of the year back then, as she is in college now, but Henderson loves nothing more than a test.

"It feels like the same thing going against her," Ricketts said. "She's a pitcher that she gets better as the game goes on. We were talking about how we left too many runners on base, but I know growing up against her, she always does good whenever there are runners on base. She loves a challenge. Jolene, she's a competitor and she's always been."

In the top of the first inning, one of Henderson's trademark changeups had Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain tied in such overeager knots that the freshman slugger's bat flew out of her hands as she completed an empty swing. And with a runner in scoring position with one out, Cal's All-American ace got out of trouble by striking out Chamberlain and Ricketts back-to-back, a feat few pitchers have managed this season, let alone with most of the crowd of 9,209 -- the biggest in World Series history -- cheering against her and cheering for the local team.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

California's Jamia Reid hauls in a deep foul ball near the fence.

The pitching gauntlet thrown down, Ricketts responded by striking out the side in the bottom of the first, even topping the lost bat induced by Henderson when Cal leadoff hitter Jamia Reid tumbled to the ground while striking out on a changeup.

It was Ricketts' turn to work out of trouble in the bottom of the second. Frani Echavarria walked on four pitches to lead off the frame, and Jace Williams reached on an infield single. But Oklahoma's ace struck out back-to-back freshmen, getting Breanna Kostreba swinging on a changeup and Danielle Henderson looking on a pitch clocked at 71 mph.

"She throws the ball hard, she paints the corner, her changeup was on -- it was dropping off the table," said California's Williams, a senior. "She came out and really threw a great ball game."

Henderson struck out five batters in the first two innings but finally found a jam from which she couldn't extricate herself in the third inning. A walk and a single put runners on first and second and Chamberlain redeemed herself with a line drive into the gap to score Georgia Casey. Cal's defense, which uncharacteristically struggled much of the day, prevented any further damage with two good plays from shortstop Cheyenne Cordes and first baseman Valerie Arioto to force runners at the plate, but one run was all Ricketts needed.

As if to reinforce that point, she struck out the side in the subsequent half inning. California batters swung nine times that frame. They came up empty all nine times.

It was all too familiar a scene for her old rival.

"I think Keilani has always been a strong pitcher," Henderson said. "She just has that demeanor when she comes up that she's a strong player -- she's also 6-foot-2 and a strong girl. When I played her when I was younger, she was the same way. I played her and her sister, and they've always been great athletes and they're good people."

Ricketts always has been an athlete more than merely a big girl who could throw hard. But watching her early in her career at Oklahoma, it felt at times like she was more aware than anyone of just how much bigger she was than everyone else.

She was still imposing, because a 6-foot-2 lefty who throws the ball 70-plus mph with movement is going to give hitters nervous feet and fretful minds. But she wasn't as imposing as she could have been because she didn't seem entirely at ease in her own body. These days, nobody in Oklahoma City looks more at ease being themselves than Ricketts.

That's not the effect of being the best pitcher in the game at the moment (and one of the best power hitters). It's the cause.

"I think she understands how to get it all working together," Gasso said. "I think you can really see that. I really do think her workouts this fall were extremely important to her success, and her commitment to it has been incredible. I think that was a big, big part of her going to another level, is her being able to feel the difference in her body."

Oklahoma now sits one win away -- the Sooners play again on Sunday -- from a place in the championship series. Winning a second national championship may yet mean another meeting between Ricketts and Henderson; Cal sounded more businesslike than demoralized after the game and is entirely capable of winning once Saturday night and twice on Sunday to earn a rematch.

But legends are hard to reel in once they get going. And it sure feels like there's one growing in Oklahoma City.

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