Lady Vols halt Tide's quest for repeat
Five things to know from Saturday's super regionals:
Tennessee punched its World Series ticket. Has anyone ever seen Ralph Weekly and Les Miles in the same room? Weekly, Tennessee's co-coach, has a reputation for in-game tinkering, but pitching Cheyanne Tarango in the biggest moment of the season was one of his ultimate head-scratchers. And like so many of them, it worked out for the Lady Vols. Weekly talked before the season about Tarango pitching more as a sophomore, but she ended up throwing barely 30 innings through the regular season and regionals, including all of 1 1/3 innings in SEC play. That happens when you have sisters Ellen and Ivy Renfroe ahead of you.
So who did Weekly call on after Ivy had control problems with a one-run lead in the fourth inning, NCAA active career stolen-base leader Kayla Braud on first base, and the heart of the Alabama order due up? Tarango, of course. And she set down Kaila Hunt, Molly Fichtner and Courtney Conley in order to keep the Crimson Tide off the scoreboard. She became just the sixth Tennessee pitcher to ever throw a pitch in a super regional.
Oklahoma will be there, too. Just don't count on it going seven innings. We need to put Oklahoma's 24 run-rule wins in some context after the Sooners routed Texas A&M 8-0 in Game 2 to win their super regional in just 11 total innings. Five of the team's run-rule wins this season came in six innings, so that's 43 innings the Sooners didn't play by dint of being too good. That's the equivalent of six games left not played, and that's not inconsequential when you talk about keeping arms and bodies fresh this time of year. Shelby Pendley did the heavy lifting Saturday with two home runs and five RBIs. Of the NCAA's 33 active career home runs leaders, four play for the Sooners: Jessica Shults, Keilani Ricketts, Lauren Chamberlain and Pendley. The only sophomores, Chamberlain and Pendley, have two more seasons of eligibility left beyond this season and are just two of the seven nonseniors among the 33.
Nebraska has Oregon on the brink. The biggest surprise of the day came in Eugene, where No. 3 Oregon's first-ever home super regional game didn't go so well in a 5-2 loss against No. 14 Nebraska. Ducks ace Jessica Moore danced around trouble in the third inning but fell full into it when Brooke Thomason hit a two-out grand slam in the fifth inning. Meanwhile, Tatum Edwards, who matched Moore's Pac-12 pitcher-of-the-year honors with her own in the Big Ten, allowed just five hits and three walks, keeping a shutout until the seventh inning. She gave up six hits and four walks in four innings when Oregon routed Nebraska earlier in the season.
The silver lining for Oregon? Moore's line looked a lot like her line in Game 1 of a super regional last season, when she gave up eight hits and four earned runs in five innings in a loss at Texas. She pitched 15 innings the following day and the Ducks went to the World Series for the first time in decades. With freshman Cheridan Hawkins, whom Nebraska didn't see Friday, Moore likely won't need to go 15 for Oregon to stage a comeback this time.
Dallas Escobedo, Blaire Luna and Hannah Rogers won with difficulty. No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Texas and No. 5 Arizona State are all within one win of the World Series, but the three favorites and their aces had to work for it.
Rogers trailed by a run when she threw her final pitch in the seventh inning against UAB but watched arguably the nation's most patient (some might say aggressively so when it comes to getting hit by pitches) lineup score two runs on two walks, two hit batters and a single in the bottom of the seventh.
Luna trailed in the fifth inning against Florida State but gave up just two earned runs on seven hits and five walks, few enough that the Longhorns could come away with a 3-2 win thanks to timely hits from Brejae Washington and Karina Scott. In four super regional games the past two seasons, Luna allowed 19 hits and 14 walks in 19 1/3 innings.
And Escobedo, who didn't allow an extra-base hit, let alone a home run, in two games against Georgia last week, saw that bugaboo reappear when she gave up four solo home runs in six innings against a Kentucky team that entered tied for ninth among SEC teams in slugging percentage. She watched Mackenzie Popescue close out the 5-4 win in Tempe, Ariz.
All three contenders are in good shape to get to Oklahoma City. All three aces are big reasons why. But considering all three would land in the same side of the draw as Oklahoma and its lineup, they might like to make the trip with a little more momentum in the circle.
Angela Tincher was really, really good. Louisiana-Lafayette's Jordan Wallace nearly did something Saturday that only Virginia Tech's Tincher and Oregon's Moore had accomplished: winning two games in one day on the road to clinch a super regional. Wallace and the Ragin' Cajuns came up short even though she allowed just two earned runs in two games against No. 8 Michigan in Ann Arbor (more on how the Wolverines pulled it out here).
Moore got quite a bit of help from her offense in the two wins at Texas last season, winning 5-4 and 10-6, but what Tincher did on May 25, 2008 remains a standard of postseason perseverance. And like a lot of things about her career, it perhaps fades too quickly from its rightful place in softball lore. Facing the No. 4 seed in the tournament that season, Tincher allowed six hits and one earned run in 14 innings that day. She struck out 22 batters and walked just two. Michigan began the day with five losses in more than three months of softball. She beat the Wolverines twice in about five hours, knowing her career was over if she didn't.
When it comes to the great college pitchers of the past decade-plus, Tincher is an equal alongside Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, Danielle Lawrie and anyone else in the conversation. Tincher's no-hitter versus Team USA that same year was her signature moment, but that afternoon in Ann Arbor wasn't far behind. Every time, like Saturday, that it doesn't happen again only reinforces it. And hopefully reinforces her place in the sport's history.
Reached by phone Saturday when it appeared Wallace might duplicate her effort, Tincher talked about the emotions that came with making the World Series and the strategy of trying to maintain some element of surprise against hitters who had seen her throw hundreds of pitches. But when it came to how her body felt at the end of that super regional, she just laughed.
"I don't remember," Tincher said. "I'm sure I was very tired. I remember the emotions, the good things. But how tired and sore I was has definitely faded. I just remember all the good stuff. I think that's a good thing."