June 10 2012
The blogs and emails critiquing the 2012 World Series began pouring in before the grounds crew (who deserve a hearty round of applause) had turned off the lights at Hall of Fame stadium. While there was much criticism of the ESPN broadcast crew (whom Spy has collectively dubbed The Voices), there was much seasoned discussion about the games.
A major question permeating many blogs and emails: was Oklahoma the best team?
Those writings which suggest they originated with Sooner partisans are unequivocal: yes. But, others, including some ostensibly penned by Crimson Tide fans, point to the unassailable facts that Bama beat OU twice in the Championship, and was ranked ahead of Oklahoma in both polls all season.
As satisfying as either answer may be to fans of the teams, they are too simplistic.
During the Garman, Michael Candrea and I discussed strong and weak points of the various contenders. At that time in the season, Candrea. who has won more national titles than any active coach, said there were 8 or 10 teams capable of winning the WCWS. The draw of teams coming out of the regionals and super regionals, and their placement on the bracket, will heavily influence the outcome. In the final analysis, we both agreed, the incidentals of softball will determine who wins the WCWS. – not just who hits the most home runs, or racks up the most strikeouts, but who makes the fewest mistakes.
This WCWS uniquely featured the top four teams in the polls, California, Alabama, Arizona State and Oklahoma, in that order. Year-end statistics including won-lost records indicated each was capable of winning the WCWS – all had the hitting, the pitching, and the defense to win. The four other teams – Tennessee, Oregon, South Florida, and LSU – had some top drawer performers, especially in their pitchers. Given game situations favorable to their strengths, each might make a run for the title. Unlikely, but theoretically possible.
The bottom four lacked a critical ingredient – depth. When the season started, Spy wrote that four teams had the best 1 through 9 lineups, offensively and defensively, capped by superior pitching. – factors reflected in their rankings: California, Alabama, Arizona State and Oklahoma.
Oklahoma had the power – Chamberlain, Ricketts, Shults – and Ricketts was considered by many to be the nation’s top pitcher, and was awarded Collegiate Player of the Year. Alabama was also centered around a top pitcher, Traina, and good hitters, but not with OU’s power. California and Arizona State had two proven pitchers – Henderson and Alioto; Escobedo and Bach. Ironically, Tennessee also had two top pitchers, the Renfroe sisters; LSU had two top pitchers, Mack and Fico (the latter an All American who led the nation on ERA much of the season). South Florida had a superior pitcher in Nevins, a top infielder in Mouse, and Oregon had Jessica Moore, but the rest of the lineup for the bottom four was not comparable.
If it were inevitable, that the top four were essentially equal, then the outcome of the series would depend on another, unpredictable intangible – who brought their A Game – from the first at-bat to the last out.
Thus, while it may be arguable among some that Oklahoma had the best team, the inarguable fact is that Alabama played the better game – twice. – thus Alabama was the better team when it counted – on the field.
We should note that Oklahoma, which brought a comparatively young team to the WCWS, is the prohibitive pre-season favorite in every post-WCWS poll or opinion piece we’ve seen. The other thread of opinion we’ve seen is that Oklahoma, to be blunt, blew it. That’s equally too simplistic.
It is more correct to say that Oklahoma made a number of mistakes, and Alabama took advantage of each of them – as a good team should.
The Murphy defense/offense. To prevent Ricketts from painting the corners, Alabama coach Murphy, and ostensibly his players, were willing to risk being hit by crowding the plate – a strategy as old as the game itself. Sal Maglie, a pitcher for the New York Giants, was known as “Sal the Barber” because he shaved batters who crowded the plate. In Game 2, Ricketts hit six batters, a World Series record. Did putting runners on base hurt? Yes, three of the six scored in an 8-6 game. But, the Voices questioned (absurdly) whether the hits were intentional. When you are in a close game, no coach or pitcher deliberately puts runners on base.
Actually, Game 2 drew close when OU scored five runs in the 7th. Both teams stranded nine runners in the second game, a haunting pattern for Sooner fans; OU had stranded 12 runners in its 4-1 victory in Game 1, and stranded nine runners in the final game. When you lose a World Series by a combined 3 runs, the 30 LOB figures loom ominously out of the box score.
Another quirky intangible: aided by those hit batters reaching base, Bama scored 6 runs on two hits.
Ricketts, who was deservedly Collegiate Player of the Year, also set another WCWS single game high with 4 wild pitches in the final game, three with Hunt on base, who scored what proved to be the winning run on a wild pitch. Ricketts also had 7 Ks in the third game, breaking the OU single season record with 457 Ks. She had a tournament high 64 strikeouts. Traina had 6 Ks in the final game, giving her the Alabama single season record of 361. These outstanding pitchers, now together on the USA national team, were metaphoricaly like two ships of the line, Ricketts fired the first salvo, Traina the last two shots. Both teams realized that, on another day, the outcomes could have been different, given the lose margins — OU by 3, Bama by 2, then by 1. Very competitive softball.
Ricketts also created the most scintillating play, scoring on a suicide squeeze. The most excitement was also generated by OU vis its 5-run comeback in the 7th inning of Game Two, which ended with the tying run on deck. The roar in the stands only matched by Alabama securing the final out in Game 3.
A highlight for Spy: we first watched Bama pitching coach Stephanie Van Brakle when she batted and pitched a travel ball team to the ASA 18A championship; also watched her pitch for Bama, and well remember the game in which she jacked a home run over the Gators scoreboard in Gainesville. Also renewed our acquaintance with her mother.
One point the Voices made was seconded by a number of readers: OU had the momentum in the final game, and a 3-0 lead, when the officials declared a rain delay. When play resumed, the Tide ran onto the field, obviously charged up, while the Sooners did not seem to have the same gung ho spirit. Maybe it was the camera angles. After the break, OU did not have a hit in the 4th or 5th, Casey, who had been moved down from leadoff to the 7th spot, singled in the 6th, and Chamberlain homered in the 7th with two out.
Two telling notes. After the final out, the Crimson Tide seniors placed their shoes on home plate, an act of retiring from college ball. Bama loses stalwarts like Lunceford, Fenton, Dawson, Boccia, Locke and Gibson, while Traina returns, along with Conley and Braud, a superb lead-off hitter. The Sooners hid their disappointment well, directing their post-game remarks to next year when virtually their entire team returns – notably the powerhouse trio of Chamberlain, Ricketts and Shults. OU loses three seniors, Katie Norris, Allee Allen and Kirsten Allen, while returning in addition to their power trio such standouts as Destinee Martinez and Briana Turang, both of whom made the All tournament team. Regulars like Henson, Vest, Casey and Sampson add to the expectations for 2013. OU had 6 freshmen on its roster for the World Series.
My heart beat faster when I saw the Internet headline: ESPN Shakes Up Announcing Crews. Alas, the reassignments were concentrated on Sports Center. No change was made in the senior crews for softball, although Pam Ward lost her football assignments. Is change needed? The legion of critics say: Either improve their performances or change the crews. The critics say many softball-smart people turn off the audio. The bit about how to slap was sophomoric. Suggesting that players were deliberately hit is insulting. Breaking into at-bats to show a spot about tweezing eyebrows and Smith striking out Barkley were an irritant. There were girls in this weekend’s 14U Hall of Fame tournament who could strike out Barkley. That stuff should be shown between innings, if at all. Don’t over-coach; none of this crew has ever coached. References to personal playing experiences should be limited to once per game. Each team meets with ESPN on Wednesday; use more of that material in breaks. Make your broadcasts a celebration of the players in the game. We didn’t see all of the broadcasts; had to go to a trailer behind the stadium, but did watch ESPN replays in subsequent days; one reader said they did not salute Margie Wright, one of the most successful coaches of all time who has retired from Fresno State. Hope the reader was wrong.
Went back through all the post-game press conferences; no criticisms of the umpiring by the coaches.. Indeed, Patty Gasso complimented the umpires. Spy won’t pass judgment. Must admit the list of umpires for Game Two was a stunner; we remember when the umpire who had the plate was roundly booed a few years ago, by the audience and press corps, especially for calls in a WCWS game between UCLA and Texas, and another game behind the plate. In Game Two, both pitchers worked deep into several counts, like the old Paul O’Neill-era Yankees, but we couldn’t see a pattern of preference.
Several players on teams which went out before the championship still said it was a wonderful experience. As one player told me, we are one of the eight best teams in the country, better than nearly 300 other teams which started the season.
Not least, the OU media department and NCAA staff did a first-rate job of supplying information to the press corps.