Women's College World Series: What each team has to do to win Bracket 2
There's excitement in the air as the 2017 Women's College World Series is set to begin in Oklahoma City.
We already gave you a look at the four-team Bracket 1, and now it's time to examine the strengths and weaknesses for each Bracket 2 team as Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma and Baylor prepare for battle.
No. 3 Oregon Ducks
If a pick had to be made for the most well-rounded team left in the tournament, it might be the Ducks, who rank fifth nationally in both ERA and runs per game.
The offense is led by a pair of talented seniors in Nikki Udria (.396 average, 10 home runs) and Danica Mercado (.382, 25 steals). Sophomore Alexis Mack (.417, 27 steals) is also a huge part of the equation for a lineup that has posted 6.64 runs per game, including 7.2 in the tournament.
That offense gives the Ducks pitchers a larger margin for error than a team like the Florida Gators, not that they need a huge cushion. Sophomore Megan Kleist is the ace of the staff, sporting a 19-3 record and a 1.21 ERA, while freshmen Miranda Elish and Maggie Balint have stepped up behind her to round out the young rotation. That inexperience could be a potential detriment, but they've held it together in the postseason so far with the help of ample run support.
Oregon is on fire right now, riding a 15-game winning into Oklahoma City that includes a regular-season sweep of No. 4 Florida State and a Super Regional disposal of No. 14 Kentucky. As the top seed in Bracket 2, the Ducks are a very dangerous team that can get it done on both sides of the field.
No. 6 Washington Huskies
Washington has yet to give us a perfectly clear picture of just how good it is, with records of 5-1 against Utah and 2-0 against Minnesota and Alabama holding up great, but a combined 1-5 mark against UCLA and Arizona raising some questions. We know when the Huskies are on that they can be very dangerous, so it might just be a wait-and-see approach to find out if they bring their best ball against Oregon on Thursday.
Washington did look good against the Ducks in the regular season, winning the three-game series on the road. As has been the case so many times this year, senior Ali Aguilar was the star of that weekend, going 7-for-10 with a home run and a double. Though Aguilar is the clear leader of the offense, she has many great pieces around her, including Morganne Flores and Casey Stangel each joining her with double-digit home runs. As a team, Washington hovers around the top 10 in batting average, home runs and scoring, among other stats.
The question is how far head coach Heather Tarr can ride the right arm of sophomore Taran Alvelo, who has started all six of the Huskies' tournament games. She has been dominant at times — pitching seven one-run innings against Utah in the decisive Super Regional game — but shaky at others, including surrendering seven runs in 2.2 innings the day prior. The potent offense means she doesn't have to be perfect, but she also can't afford any more blow-ups.
No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners
There's a certain swagger that comes with already knowing you are capable of being the best, and Oklahoma has embodied that this postseason. The defending champions have been absolutely fearless with their backs against the wall, winning four straight games in regional play after falling in the opener before making Auburn look like a piece of cake on the road to advance to the WCWS. That regional run included a dramatic 10th-inning comeback capped by a Sydney Romero walk-off homer to force the if necessary game against Tulsa, which the Sooners won 3-0.
Paige Parker, who threw the shutout against the Golden Hurricane, followed that up with another shutout in Game 1 against Auburn before Paige Lowary slammed the door shut in relief the next day, tossing the final 4.2 innings while only allowing two hits and an unearned run. Parker, who is 23-5 with a 1.29 ERA and 243 strikeouts, will be an individual to keep an eye on after she was magnificent in last year's run to the title, including complete-game victories in each of the Sooners' championship series wins.
What makes this year's Sooners scary is they have maintained their elite offense (6.7 runs per game in 2016, 6.4 this year) while the pitching has improved immensely (1.52 ERA in 2017 after 2.26 last year). We already know they have the heart of a champion, and the stats say this year's team is just as good, even if its seeding fell (dropped from No. 3 to No. 10). The Sooners can hit for power and average, they steal bases, and their pitching is on another level from the championship season. This is not an opponent anyone is going to want to face, because it seems Patty Gasso once again has her squad peaking at the right time.
No. 15 Baylor Bears
The surprise entrant in the eight-team championship field, Baylor made its way to Oklahoma City by pulling off an absolutely stunning upset of No. 2 Arizona. Beyond just being a 15-2 upset, the way it unfolded was remarkable, with the Bears losing Game 1, scoring four runs in the sixth inning to win Game 2, and hitting a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh inning of Game 3 to win it by a run.
Of course, it's not like Baylor came out of nowhere for this run after being good enough to earn a seed. With the 11th-highest batting average and 15th-lowest ERA nationally, this is a team very capable of beating you in both facets of the game. And the pitching, led by Kelsee Selman and Gia Rodoni, has really hit its stride in the postseason, allowing just 14 runs in six games — nine of which came in the two wins against Arizona.
Selman is still the ace of the staff who head coach Glenn Moore trusts in the big spots — she started all three games against Arizona — but Rodoni has been banging down the door with a 0.37 postseason ERA, including two shutouts in regional play. His decision between riding the hot hand or sticking with his struggling ace (3.82 postseason ERA) will be an interesting one.
Baylor is going to need to find some pop in the lineup to continue to be successful against juggernaut teams like it was with the Wildcats. Despite its stellar .325 team batting average, it carries a mediocre slugging percentage of .446, showing the team's tendency to hit singles but not extra-base hits. Sunday's hero Shelby McGlaun and junior Shelby Friudenberg each have 11 home runs on the year and could require some big hits to guide the Bears through the difficult lower bracket.