Sunday, April 30, 2006

2:00 Eastern/1:00 Central/11:00 Pacific: I'm following a bunch of game-trackers today, which you can access via the links on the right-hand side of this page (either through the CSTV page or particular teams' pages). I can report the following, for now...

Northwestern has taken the first game from Michigan, 2-1, in Ann Arbor.

Bottom of the 4th, Georgia leads Tennessee 2-0.

I will add in links to game articles as they become available.

6:00 Eastern/5:00 Central/3:00 Pacific: Some updates...

Michigan shut out Northwestern in the second game of their double-header, 2-0, thus producing a split. The Wolverines' Jennie Ritter pitched complete games in both ends of the twin-bill, giving her 28 innings pitched for the weekend. As this Northwestern article points out, the Wildcats still have the upper hand in the Big 10 race, with a pair of games remaining for each team next weekend.

Georgia defeated Tennessee 7-6, thus giving the Bulldogs two out of three in the series against the Lady Volunteers. UGA also clinched the SEC Eastern Division. As I discussed a couple of postings ago (see below), Tennessee has had trouble closing out tight games, which happened again today.

UCLA captured a 3-1 home victory over Arizona State.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Before the start of this weekend's play, first-place Northwestern was one game ahead of Michigan in the loss column in Big 10 competition. With Northwestern defeating Michigan State Friday and earlier today, and Michigan doing the same against Illinois, first place will be very much at stake in Sunday's Wildcat-Wolvernine double-header in Ann Arbor (although each team has two additional conference games remaining after facing each other). As summarized in the Saturday game story from the Michigan softball site:

The victory runs Michigan's record to 33-12 overall and 11-3 in the Big Ten, while Illinois falls to 23-27 and 7-8. With a Northwestern sweep at Michigan State this weekend, the Wolverines remain in second place in the Big Ten behind the Wildcats, who are 35-10 overall and 13-2 in the Big Ten.

Michigan will vie for first place in the conference and a chance to win its third straight Big Ten regular-season title when the Wolverines host the Northwestern Wildcats in a doubleheader Sunday (April 30) at noon at Alumni Field. The Wolverines will also celebrate Senior Day on Sunday, honoring [Stephanie] Bercaw, [Tiffany] Haas, Grace Leutele..., [Becky] Marx and [Jennie] Ritter between games.


UM actually has one more regular-season home game remaining, Wednesday night against Eastern Michigan, but this is a non-conference game.

Ritter went the full seven innings in the pitcher's circle against Illinois on both Friday and Saturday, so it will be interesting to see how much throws in the two games against Northwestern Sunday.

Northwestern's Saturday game story also provides some interesting facts:

*The Wildcats have now won 10 straight games.

*In Saturday's game, Michigan State issued no fewer than three intentional walks to the Wildcats' Garland Cooper.

*Northwestern's top pitcher, Eileen Canney, only pitched 4 1/3 innings of relief Saturday; combined with the 7 innings she pitched Friday, her total is 11 1/3 for the weekend, meaning that she'll be a little more rested than Michigan's Ritter.

Elsewhere...

UCLA followed its 8-2 rout of the University of Arizona on Friday, by edging Arizona St. 1-0, Saturday. Tomorrow's UCLA-ASU rematch is the only thing that now stands in the way of the Bruins' sweeping all six games this season from the two Arizona schools.

In SEC play, Tennessee and Georgia split their Saturday twin-bill. The Bulldogs took the first game 5-3, whereas the Vols retaliated with a 12-0 five-inning blow-out in the second game (presumably under some type of "run rule" provision).

Friday, April 28, 2006

Lots of big games this weekend, as the regular season come down to the home stretch.

Starting with the Big 10, first-place Northwestern (11-2 in conference) visits second-place Michigan (9-3) for a Sunday double-header. These two games will likely play a substantial -- though not necessarily decisive -- role in determining who finishes first in the league. The reason the Wildcat-Wolverine head-to-head match-ups may not decide the conference championship is that each team has four additional Big 10 games remaining. Michigan plays Illinois before Northwestern, and then Michigan State later on. Northwestern faces these same two opponents, but in the opposite order.

Michigan pitcher Jennie Ritter is well-known for her performance last year in leading the Wolverines to the national championship.

Probably less well known, but not necessarily any less effective, is Northwestern pitcher Eileen Canney, who gained attention by striking out 28 University of Minnesota batters in an 18-inning game last weekend. I suppose that if Eileen were off her game a bit, it would be considered an "un-Canney" occurrence.

Adding further intrigue to Northwestern and Michigan's battle in the Big 10 regular-season race is that the conference tournament (May 11-13) will be hosted by whichever team finishes at the top of the standings. Considering the number of games remaining, third-place Ohio State (10-4) can't be counted out, either. I have just added the Buckeyes' team page to the list of links on the right-hand side of this page.

The highlight of Pac 10 play would appear to be UCLA hosting the Arizona schools. Three weeks ago, the Bruins swept all their games of a three-game trip through the Grand Canyon State, defeating Arizona St. once and the University of Arizona twice. This weekend, to balance things out, UCLA plays U of A once and ASU twice (here's a preview from the Daily Bruin, focusing on the UCLA-U of A rivalry).

Sunday's weekend finale, against the Sun Devils, is UCLA's Senior Day. An announcement on the UCLA softball site proudly proclaims:

After playing host to Arizona on Friday afternoon at 1 pm, the Bruins play host to Arizona State for the final regular season games of the 2006 season. Prior to Saturday's game, UCLA will present AIAW National Championship rings to members of the 1978 softball team, while Sunday will be Senior Day at Easton Stadium, honoring Caitlin Benyi, Andrea Duran, Alissa Eno and Emily Zaplatosch. Sunday's game against Arizona State is SOLD OUT.

Benyi (pronounced BAIN-EE) and Zaplatosch (nicknamed "Zap") have been teammates since high school (and perhaps even longer, considering youth play). They're from Arizona, making it interesting that they chose UCLA over local powerhouse U of A, a fact not lost on the writer of this article from a year ago.

Finally, concerning the Southeastern Conference, I wanted to discuss the University of Tennessee, about whom I don't think I've said much since launching this blog. Not only did the Lady Volunteers make it to last year's Women's College World Series of softball, but they very nearly beat out Michigan to advance to the championship round.

With star pitcher Monica Abbott returning, Tennessee really seemed poised for a breakthrough year this season (like Texas's Cat Osterman, about whom much has been written on this blog, Abbott throws lefty and is over six-feet tall). In fact, the Vols were returning four All-America players in all and were the pre-season pick of SEC coaches to win the league this year.

For whatever reason, however, Tennessee had some difficulties early in SEC play. A month ago, Tennessee was swept three straight by Alabama, and the Lady Vols also have SEC losses to Florida (twice) and Auburn. The second loss of the Alabama series had to have been especially heartbreaking to Tennessee. The box score says it all:

...........................................R H E
--------------------------------------------------------------
Tennessee........... 000 000 013 - 4 9 1
Alabama.............. 000 000 014 - 5 12 1
--------------------------------------------------------------

After both teams went scoreless in the regulation seven innings, Tennessee scored a run in the top of the eighth, only to have it matched by Alabama. When the Vols scored three runs in the top of the ninth, that presumably looked like a pretty safe lead, given the generally low-scoring nature of fast-pitch softball. But, as can be seen, 'Bama rallied for four runs and the win. A full article on that game is available here.

The Lady Volunteers have rebounded, however, and have now risen to No. 4 and No. 6 national rankings in the two polls (see links on the right). Tennessee's rising stock undoubtedly derives from a current 12-game winning streak. The opposition during the streak has not been terribly strong, however, mainly consisting of three of the weaker SEC teams, plus Austin Peay.

In a pair of three-game series that will each follow the format of Saturday double-headers and a single game Sunday, Tennessee goes to Georgia (ranked 9th and 11th nationally) this weekend, and hosts LSU (10th and 11th) the next. These series should go a long way in showing whether the Vols' high national rankings are truly deserved. To read more about Tennessee, I have also added the Vols' team page to the links section.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

5:30 Central/3:30 Pacific: I see from CSTV's scoreboard and gametracker (link on the right-hand side of this page) that the University of Washington has defeated UCLA 3-2 in 12 innings, in the completion of the teams' rain-suspended April 15 game from when the teams were in Seattle. Though the resumption of the game took place on the Bruins' field, the Huskies, of course, batted as the home team. I will link to articles on this game as they become available. UCLA and "U-Dub" still have their regularly scheduled game to play later today, with the Bruins now becoming the home team. And Texas at Texas A&M is also coming up tonight!

9:45 Central/7:45 Pacific: University of Texas pitcher Cat Osterman came within one out of yet another no-hitter, giving up a single with two out in the home half of the seventh to Texas A&M's Rocky Spencer. The Aggies actually had runners on first and second at the end, due to a previous walk, but the Longhorns held on for the 1-0 victory.

UCLA took the second game against the University of Washington, resulting in a split of their makeshift "double-header." The UCLA victory was by a 7-6 score, with the Bruins holding off the Huskies at the end.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

There's some good midweek action this week. On Wednesday, UCLA (No. 1 nationally) and Texas (No. 2) each takes on a ranked intra-conference rival in Washington and Texas A&M, respectively. According to a news release on the UCLA athletics website:

UCLA faces an unusually busy Pac-10 schedule this week, as Washington travels to Los Angeles on Wednesday for 12 scheduled innings before the Bruins play host to Arizona and Arizona State on the weekend. Wednesday's schedule will begin at noon with the resumption of a game that was washed out in Seattle on April 15. Play will begin in the top of the third inning with UCLA's Ashley Herrera leading off. The regularly scheduled game then take[s] place with the Bruins batting as the home team.

The Huskies, who are ranked 14th and 15th in the current national polls (see links to the rankings on the right-hand side of the current page), lost to the Bruins 6-0 on April 14 in Seattle, in the one game of that series that was able to be completed. I have also added the University of Washington's softball page to the aforementioned list of links.

Back in the Lone Star State, No. 15/17 Texas A&M hosts the Longhorns of UT. This is the second meeting of the teams this season, the Aggies having scored a 4-2 upset at Texas on April 5. Meagan Denny started for the Longhorns in that game and gave up all four runs.

I have said very little about Texas A&M thus far since starting this blog (and in fact, just added the team's official webpage to the links). The Aggies definitely have a strong team, however, with their aforementioned national ranking and current second-place status in the Big 12 (at 11-4), behind Texas (11-2). Full standings are available on the conference's softball webpage, included among the links on the right-hand side of the page.

According to the A&M softball history page (at the bottom of this linked document), the Aggies were a powerhouse during the early NCAA era of college softball. They won two national championships and made the Women's College World Series five times, all in the 1980s, but have not made it back to the WCWS since.

This year's Aggie squad has a few players among the Top 10 in various Big 12 statistical categories. The one A&M player whose statistics jump out at me is sophomore Megan Gibson, a double threat as a pitcher (12th in the league in ERA) and hitter.

Gibson excels particularly at On Base Percentage (6th in the Big 12 at .456) and Slugging Percentage (5th at .664). As those of you familiar with the "sabermetric" school of baseball statistical analysis may be aware, the combination of On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) is considered a superior measure of offensive prowess than, for example, Batting Average, which doesn't distinguish whether a hit is a single, double, triple, or home run, and doesn't credit ability to draw walks.

Another top Aggie is fellow sophomore and double threat Amanda Scarborough, who pitched a complete-game victory against the Longhorns in this year's first meeting between the teams. Scarborough ranks 8th in the conference in ERA as a pitcher, and first in doubles as a hitter.

There's one other thing I wanted to discuss briefly: In my April 18 posting, where I reviewed the scheduling formats of the major conferences, I stated that the two games each Big 12 team plays against every conference opponent are played as a double-header or as single games on consecutive days (and, implicitly, at the same location).

As you might have figured out from the dates of this year's UT-A&M meetings (and which I hadn't noticed until now), there are some exceptions to this format. Not only are the two Aggie-Longhorn match-ups separated by three weeks this season; each school gets to host a game (Baylor also plays "home and home" with UT and A&M).

My guess is that if, say, Texas Tech and Nebraska were thinking of playing home and home, the cost for each team to take a trip to the other venue would be prohibitive (at least within the scope of current softball budgets). Texas (Austin), Texas A&M (College Station), and Baylor (Waco), however, are all within driving distance of each other, as seen in this distance table of Texas cities and this map of the state (College Station is not shown in the map, but is less than 100 miles northwest of Houston).

I had just intended to write a brief entry tonight about the upcoming UCLA-Washington and A&M-UT games, but by now, I've probably written one of my longer postings. That's the joy of blogging!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Here are some pictures I took at last Thursday's Game 1 of the Texas at Texas Tech double-header. Some of the longer-distance photos are a bit fuzzy, but I think the overall set is pretty good. The opener was completed in light showers, but heavier rain during Game 2 forced its cancellation.



First, a shot of Texas pitcher Cat Osterman in the circle. But for a Red Raider infield hit when Whitney Riley beat out a grounder to short in the fifth inning, Osterman would've had a perfect game.

I checked "Cat's Korner" (that's "K" as in strike-out), Osterman's blog, to see if she wrote anything about the Texas Tech game. I'm curious how frustrated she felt at missing a perfect game or no-hitter. She has 20 no-hitters and seven perfectos in her college career, so it presumably wouldn't be as devastating as if someone were going for her first. Still, though, great athletes tend to be very hungry and competitive. As of now, her most recent entry is from April 19, so you'll have to check back on her blog to see if she's written anything new.

Below is another shot of Cat, with her Longhorn infield...



Next, Shannon Thomas of Texas bats against the Red Raiders' Erin Crawford in the 2nd inning, with the Longhorns' Desiree Williams on deck...



Williams homered later on, in the 5th. Here, her Texas teammates form a greeting committee at home plate...



Texas Tech's Rocky Johnson Field (aka "The Rock"), was pretty full, despite the rainy weather. I would say Raider fans (to the right, largely wearing red) comprised about 60% of attendees, and Longhorn fans (to the left, wearing burnt orange), 40%.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Wrapping up the series I've been reviewing this weekend...

Arizona fell just short of sweeping all three games on its northern California trip, dropping a 5-1 decision to Cal on Sunday.

Arizona St., however, avenged yesterday's loss to Stanford, besting the Cardinal 3-1.

U of A and ASU each thus went 2-1 in northern Cal, whereas the two host schools, Stanford and Cal, each went 1-2. As of when I'm writing on Sunday night, the Pac 10 website (see links on the right-hand side of the page) has not updated the conference standings. When they are updated, we will see that Arizona State and Arizona (who had been in fourth and fifth places, respectively) will have gained a bit on Cal and Stanford (who had been in second and third, respectively). UCLA remains at the top of the standings.

In the SEC, Alabama defeated Georgia 4-1 to take their three-game series.

In Big 12 play, Kansas stunned Texas 1-0.

Northwestern (11-2 in conference) continues to lead the Big 10, after a sweep today over Minnesota. Game 1 took 18 innings, with Wildcat pitcher Eileen Canney striking out 28 Golden Gophers. Defending national champion Michigan is in second at 9-3, after splitting two with Penn State today. Michigan hosts Northwestern a week from today in a double-header that will likely have major implications for the conference title.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Day 2 of the Arizona schools' trip through northern California is now on the books, albeit much later than expected for Arizona and Cal. The Wildcats and Golden Bears played for nearly double the regulation seven-inning length of a game, with Arizona prevailing 4-2 on a two-run homer by Kristie Fox in the top of the 13th. Taryne Mowatt pitched 13 innings for the win and also got two hits of her own in her six at-bats (Mowatt often plays in the field when not pitching).

Meanwhile, Stanford rebounded from yesterday's loss to U of A by knocking off ASU, 3-1. Saturday's team match-ups will be repeated Sunday.

Elsewhere, it was "splitsville" for Alabama and Georgia in their Saturday double-header, while Michigan took two from Ohio State.

It's been a busy week for Wolverine senior pitcher Jennie Ritter, who got both wins vs. the Buckeyes today (going all seven innings in the first game, then five in relief of Lorilyn Wilson in the nightcap).

Last Tuesday, in a non-conference double-header against Central Michigan, Ritter pitched a total of 16 innings in leading Michigan to a sweep. Ritter went the distance in the opener, a regulation seven-inning game. Wilson then started Game 2, which went into extra frames. After giving up a lead-off single to CMU in the top of the 10th, she was replaced by Ritter. Most observers probably figured the game wouldn't go much longer, but they would have been wrong. Ritter ended up pitching another nine innings, before UM won it in the bottom of the 18th.

Based on the play-by-play sheet (click here and then scroll down below the box score), CMU and Michigan didn't appear to use the International Tie Breaker (ITB) system that I alluded to in my Wednesday, April 19 posting (below). The way the ITB has been applied in NCAA softball, once the 10th inning is reached, each half-inning begins with a runner on second base, to increase the chances of a score and eventual closure to the game.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The most interesting story of this weekend appears to me to be the two Arizona schools going up to northern California to take on Stanford and Cal. At this point, score it Visitors 2, Hosts 0. Arizona defeated Stanford 4-1, while ASU blanked Cal 2-0. The teams will now switch opponents. Consider the attractions of these games:

*All four teams are ranked in the Top 10 nationally.

*As indicated in the official Pac 10 stats (as of April 17), excluding players whose at-bats are in the single digits, six of the top seven leaders in batting average are on these four teams:

Caitlin Lowe, ARIZ......... .490
Kaitlin Cochran, ASU....... .480
Charters, Ashley, WASH..... .429
Sutton, Alex, CAL.......... .404
Morris, Catalina, STAN..... .400
Autumn Champion, ARIZ...... .400
Kristie Fox, ARIZ.......... .393

*Further, again removing players with very little action, five of the top six pitchers in Earned Run Average (ERA) are on the four teams:

Selden, Anjelica, UCLA..... 0.73
Thorson, Kristina, CAL..... 0.80
Taryne Mowatt, ARIZ........ 0.84
Alicia Hollowell, ARIZ..... 0.85
Katie Burkhart, ASU........ 1.19
Desiree Serrano, ASU....... 1.23

As things are turning out in Friday's games, however, the Bay Area gathering of 'Zona, ASU, Stanford, and Cal, is not the only big news in the Pac 10. The nation's No. 1 team, UCLA, with ERA leader Selden in the pitcher's circle, has lost at home to Oregon State, 2-0.

Across the country, Alabama hosts Georgia in a major SEC series starting Saturday.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

I'm just back from Game 1 of a double-header between the University of Texas and Texas Tech here in Lubbock, a 6-0 Longhorn win. The big story is that UT pitcher Cat Osterman came very close to yet another no-hitter -- and a perfect game, even.

Other than a fifth-inning infield hit when the Red Raiders' Whitney Riley beat out a grounder to short, Osterman faced the minimum number of batters. I was sitting on the third-base side, so I didn't have a good view of the play at first base. Two other balls were well hit by Texas Tech -- a high fly to left that almost reached the warning track and a hard liner to short -- but Longhorn fielders caught the ball each time.

This was the first time I had seen Osterman pitch in person. Moreso than when watching her on television, I was really struck with how tall and thin she is.

Game 2, which I did not stay for, is currently underway. I just verified from a gametracker that Meagan Denny is pitching for UT, as would be expected from past Longhorn double-headers. As recently as Monday of this week, Lubbock temperatures were in the 90s (F.), but today has been gray and rainy throughout, including showers through most of Game 1. Today's high temperature probably reached into the 60s, but it was in the mid-50s at the time of this writing. The winds were also starting to kick up.

You can check the Texas Tech and UT softball websites (via the links on the right-hand side of this page) throughout the evening for game stories on both parts of the twin-bill. Also, I took some pictures at the game, which I will post in the next few days.

Update: Game 2 cancelled midway through.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tomorrow will finally be the day that Texas Tech University softball fans get to see their Red Raiders take on the University of Texas (ranked No. 1 or 2 in the nation in recent weeks) and its star pitcher, 6-foot-2 lefty Cat Osterman. The teams will play a double-header at Tech's Rocky Johnson Field (near the Health Sciences Center, to the south), with the games starting at 4:00 and 6:00.

Lubbock's recent experience with temperatures in the 90s -- or as I call it, "Summer in mid-April" -- has fortunately ended. The weather forecast for Thursday's game is that it will be pleasantly cool (pleasant, in my opinion, at least). The (expected) morning rain hopefully will dissipate by gametime, with the temperature reaching 66 degrees.

Unfortunately, the Raiders are struggling at the moment, having been swept yesterday by last-place Oklahoma State in Lubbock; prior to that, Texas Tech was swept by Kansas in Lawrence over the weekend.

With the possible exception of her freshman year in 2002, this will be Osterman's first appearance pitching at Texas Tech (assuming that she pitches in at least one of the games). Texas comes to Lubbock in even-numbered years, and Cat redshirted in 2004 to concentrate on the Olympics (at which she was a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. squad).

Last Saturday at Oklahoma, in a game televised by ESPN, Osterman pitched her fifth no-hitter of the season and 20th of her career.

Among Osterman's other accomplishments, she has struck out more batters than anyone in NCAA softball history.

This current season, opponents are batting .078 against Osterman, 48 hits in 612 official at-bats (stats page).

Typically, no-hitters are rare events. However, on my "Hot Hand" website, where I use examples of sports streakiness to illustrate concepts of probability for the statistics classes I teach at Texas Tech, I've posted what may be a surprising finding. My analysis shows that, considering how rarely Osterman gives up hits in general and the seven-innning length of softball games (as opposed to nine), she would actually be expected to throw a fair number of no-hitters!

What will also strike many observers as surprising is that Osterman will actually be trying to avenge a loss to Texas Tech a year ago in Game 1 of their double-header, albeit one under highly unusual circumstances. A regulation softball game is 7 innings. After 7, it was 0-0, with Cat not allowing Tech a hit.

Once a game reaches the 10th inning, to try to hasten its conclusion, each half-inning starts with a runner automatically on second base (known as the ITB or International Tie Breaker). The rule is described in the NCAA rules manual (see page 63 in your PDF reader) and also on this discussion board.

Texas Tech scored as the runner advanced to third on an out, then came home on an error. A Raider single -- Tech's first and only hit of the game -- made it 2-0, and then UT failed to score.

Osterman had 24 strike-outs for the game. So, yes, Tech won the game, but the Red Raiders did virtually no damage offensively.

In Game 2 of last year's twin-bill, the Longhorns' Meagan Denny, then a freshman, no-hit the Red Raiders, 3-0, meaning the Texas Tech got one hit in the two games combined.

I would likewise expect Texas to start Osterman in one of the games tomorrow and Denny in the other.

As exemplified by last year's game in which the Red Raiders beat the Longhorns, the major impediment for Texas in reaching the top of the college softball universe was offensive production. In their two Women's College World Series losses last year (which eliminated them), the Longhorns were shut out each time.

Accordingly, UT brought a new hitting coach to Austin, Corrie Hill (known as "Chill," as I learned from the aforementioned ESPN broadcast).

Sure enough, the Longhorns appear to have greatly improved their offensive output, as evidenced by the following comparison (shown in an ESPN graphic during the Texas at Oklahoma game, 4/15/06).

-------------------------2005----------2006 (thus far)--

Batting Avg.--------.233-----------.273------------

Runs/Game-----------2.81-----------4.26---------

Home Runs------------15-------------39-------------

Slugging Pct.---------.303-----------.448------------

If one were to nit-pick, it could be argued that Texas has not yet faced the bulk of the tough pitching it's going to encounter this season, namely in the NCAA play-offs and WCWS, thus overstating the Longhorns' 2006 hitting prowess. While three of the four 2006 statistics above could conceivably go down at a later point, the home run count, being a cumulative total, cannot go down.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

As I’ve alluded to in recent postings, I wanted to discuss the four major softball conferences’ scheduling formats for league play. Below are the formats, as best as I could figure them out. You can, of course, see actual schedules via the links on the right-hand side of the page to conference and team websites. Teams may, of course, complete fewer conference games than scheduled, due to weather-related cancellations.

Big 10: Each school plays each other twice. The standard format is for a given team to go play two single games at one school on a Friday and Saturday, respectively, then move on to play a Sunday double-header at a different school. The Big 10 actually has 11 schools (thanks to the addition of Penn State roughly 15 years ago). All schools participate in softball, giving each team 10 opponents and thus a 20-game conference schedule.

Big 12: Each school plays each other school twice, either in a double-header or on consecutive days. Conference play can be on weekends or weekdays, but there always appears to be at least one day off between playing different opponents. Colorado and Kansas State do not participate in softball, leaving each school nine opponents and 18 conference games.

Pac10: Each school plays each other three times, but in a very creative way. As an example, Stanford is playing the two Oregon schools in the following manner: over a weekend, Stanford hosts Oregon State for one game and the University of Oregon for two; later in the season, the Cardinal go to UO for one and OSU for two. Conference play appears confined to weekends, with a format of either three single games, or a single game and a double-header. USC and Washington State do not participate in softball, giving each school seven opponents and 21 conference games.

SEC: Alone among these conferences, the SEC keeps separate softball standings by division, in this case Eastern and Western (the Big 12 uses North and South divisions for football, but not for other sports). Vanderbilt, which would be in the Eastern Division, is the only conference team not to participate in softball. Teams play each other three times each, in the format of a double-header one day, followed by a single game the next day. Weekdays as well as weekends are used, but there’s always at least one day off between playing different opponents.

Alabama has a particularly taxing stretch up ahead, with six SEC games in five days: the Crimson Tide hosts Georgia in a double-header on Saturday, April 22, followed by a single game on Sunday; after taking Monday off, 'Bama travels to Auburn for a twin-bill on Tuesday and a single game Wednesday. With 10 opponents, each team plays 30 conference games.

In other softball notes...

Today's Michigan Daily has a story on the Wolverines' recent offensive woes.

Northwestern's agog over its first-ever nationally televised home game (on CSTV), today against Notre Dame. Northwestern is currently in first place in the Big 10, but all four of the Wildcats' remaining conference series are on the road.

Monday, April 17, 2006

A big week of softball coming up at Texas Tech.

Newly hired Lady Raider basketball coach, Kristy Curry, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch tomorrow before the 3:00 opener of a TTU double-header against Oklahoma State.

Two days later, Thursday, April 20, the University of Texas and star pitcher Cat Osterman come to Lubbock, also for a twin-bill (4:00/6:00). Keep checking back for my preview of the UT-Tech match-up.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Following up on yesterday's summary (below) of games for the first part of the weekend (Friday and early Saturday), I wanted to provide results for the rest of the weekend. If one were going to use a song to describe some of the Saturday and Sunday developments, it would be "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

The second game of the UCLA-Washington series in Seattle experienced a stoppage due to weather. Quoting from the UCLA athletic website's article:

There was no score through two full innings before rain, hail and wind gusts of up to 33 mph forced a rain delay and the eventual suspension of the game.

Michigan, having played two games at Iowa, moved on to Wisconsin for a Sunday double-header, but it too was rained out.

(Those of you who also follow Major League Baseball may have heard about the Blue Jays and White Sox trying to get in as much of their game as possible in rain-soaked Chicago.)

In games that were completed...

Though experiencing the midwestern rainstorm themselves to some degree, Michigan State and Iowa split a Sunday double-header on the Hawkeyes' home field.

Alabama, which came into this weekend unbeaten in SEC play, ended up losing two of three to LSU.

Arizona shut out intrastate rival ASU to gain a split of their series.

Stanford took two of three from Cal.

Texas Tech got swept at Kansas, each loss coming by a single run.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Texas's Cat Osterman has just pitched her fifth no-hitter of the season and 20th of her career. It occurred earlier this afternoon in a 2-0 Longhorn victory over Oklahoma, in a game televised by ESPN. So commonplace has an Osterman no-hitter become, apparently, that UT's celebration after the final out was indistinguishable from what you'd see a team exhibit after any routine win; Cat's teammates just exchanged high-fives with her as they walked off the field. (I neglected to mention earlier that Texas also beat OU in the Friday series opener.)

I'll have more about Osterman and the Longhorns in a couple days, as I preview the Texas at Texas Tech double-header coming up this Thursday (April 20) at 4:00 and 6:00 pm. As I discussed a couple of entries ago (below), softball pitchers are certainly capable of throwing in both games of a twin-bill, but it's conceivable Osterman could just pitch in one of the two games against the Red Raiders. Looking over the box scores from previous Longhorn double-headers (see link to UT softball site on the right-hand side of the current page), Coach Connie Clark has tended to start Osterman in one game and Meagan Denny in the other.

Meanwhile, Texas Tech has lost the opener of its weekend series at Kansas, 1-0, on a first-inning run (box score).

In other softball news so far this weekend...

Alabama suffered its first conference (SEC) loss this season.

In the Pac 10, UCLA took the opener from Washington, whereas Arizona lost its opener to intrastate rival ASU.

Michigan lost the Saturday game to Iowa, after besting the Hawkeyes on Friday. Big 10 leader MSU split with Wisconsin.

Friday, April 14, 2006

In this posting, I preview this weekend's top college softball match-ups. Before doing so, it should be noted that UCLA has overtaken Texas as the No. 1 team in the nation, according to both major polls (see links on the right-hand side of the page to access these rankings).

The Bruins swept two games from the University of Arizona in Tucson last weekend, an accomplishment sure to capture the attention of the nation's softball observers. Not only are UCLA and Arizona the most successful softball programs historically in the 24 years of NCAA play, winning 10 and 6 national titles, respectively. The two schools also have both been ranked in the top 5 nationally this year.

Also this past week, the UCLA Daily Bruin (for which I wrote from 1980-1983, although, ironically, never covering softball) ran a feature on outfielders Whitney Holum (Jr.) and Krista Colburn (So.), two players who have elevated their games this year, thus adding offensive depth to a UCLA line-up that also includes more established hitters Caitlin Benyi, Andrea Duran, Jodie Legaspi, and Emily Zaplatosch.

(Note that, where the DB feature article on Holum and Colburn alludes to a game "[a]gainst Michigan on a nationwide broadcast of last year's national title game...," the contest in question was a March 15, 2006 rematch of last year's NCAA championship final between the Bruins and Wolverines, broadcast live on ESPN 2 and won by UCLA; it most certainly is not referring to the actual 2005 final, which, of course, was won by Michigan.)

Texas meanwhile was defeated by Texas A&M last Wednesday, April 5, in Austin, thus contributing to the Longhorns' fall from No. 1 (although they continue to receive some votes for the top spot). Texas did rebound from the A&M loss with a weekend series sweep over Missouri, but according to this report on the TexasSports website, didn't look so great in victory.

As noted on the official Pac 10 softball webpage (link in the upper-right portion of this page), this weekend's conference games feature the traditional rivalries: Arizona vs. Arizona St., Oregon vs. Oregon St., Stanford vs. Cal, and UCLA vs. Washington. UCLA vs. Washington??? Well, USC and Washington St. don't field softball teams, thus leaving the Bruins and Huskies, respectively, without their natural geographic rivalries, so they end up playing each other on Rivalry Weekend. One of the two UCLA-UW (or as the locals say, U-Dub) games from Seattle will be taped for broadcast on Fox Sports Net cable channels around the country.

Looking at both sets of national rankings, one sees six Pac 10 squads in the top 10 (UCLA, Arizona, Cal, Stanford, Oregon State, and Arizona State), Washington at No. 14, and Oregon not in the top 25, but still receiving some votes. Thus, every single Pac 10 game played is going to feature two fine teams.

In the Big 12, Saturday's game featuring Texas at Oklahoma will be nationally televised on ESPN, at noon Central. It'll be a good chance for fans in Lubbock, Texas to see the Longhorns before they come play at Texas Tech on Thursday, April 20. Oklahoma has been ranked around 20th in the nation lately, but is only 4-7 in the conference. Nebraska and Baylor, the current third- and fourth-place teams in the Big 12, play in Lincoln. Second place Texas A&M is at Iowa State. Other series include Texas Tech at Kansas, and Oklahoma State at Missouri. Colorado and Kansas State don't field teams.

Turning to the Big 10, defending national champion Michigan (currently in second place by a game to Michigan State) is at Iowa. The Spartans will be at Wisconsin.

Finally, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) features a series between the first- and second-place teams in its Western Division, Alabama (15-0 in conference and No. 3 in both national polls) and LSU (12-3 and No. 11), in Tuscaloosa.

Scheduling formats differ widely by conference, something I'll discuss in more detail in a future posting. Teams will sometimes play two games over a weekend, sometimes three. Some conferences are split up into geographic subdivisions (as seen with the SEC), others are not. The Big 12 keeps standings separately for North and South divisions in football (to determine who plays in the conference championship game), but not in other sports.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

This Friday (and all remaining Fridays of the regular season), I will preview the upcoming weekend's games. Before doing so, I wanted to do an entry, primarily for sports fans who have not watched much softball, on differences they could expect to see between softball and baseball.

The Sandy Plains Softball Association of Marietta, Georgia has produced a document entitled Fastpitch 101, which details the similarities and differences in the rules of the two sports. Here are some of my own observations from over the years:

1. Because the bases are considerably closer together in softball (60 feet) than in baseball (90 feet), softball infielders consistently must pick up ground balls and make their throws to first base quickly, in order to get the runner. In other words, many (if not most) softball grounders result in "bang-bang" plays at first base, necessitating a lot of close calls by first-base umpires, who must detect whether the thrown ball (to the first-baseperson's mitt) or the runner's foot reached the bag before the other. In contrast, if a baseball infielder snatches up a grounder cleanly, he can usually take the time to set up his foot positioning, glide forward a couple times, and unhurriedly deliver the ball to first base.

2. Softball games are seven innings, instead of baseball's nine. To me, here's the biggest implication of this difference: If the team I'm pulling for is losing by a run or two in the fourth or fifth inning, I would feel little or no sense of panic in baseball, whereas I would definitely feel some in softball.

3. The underhand delivery of softball pitchers does not appear to greatly tax their arms, at least nowhere near as much as baseball's overhand pitching motion. Not only do softball pitchers often throw in both games of a double-header; sometimes, they will pitch every inning of their teams' appearances in softball's Women's College World Series or other tournaments.

In the 2003 WCWS, UCLA's Keira Goerl pitched all 47 innings played by the Bruins. Was she worn out toward the end? Hardly. She finished things off victoriously, with an extra-inning no-hitter in the championship game against Cal.

A year later, LSU's Kristin Schmidt pitched 20 and 2/3 innings in one day during the World Series! I don't believe teams are typically called upon to play three times in a single day, but rain storms are a not-infrequent occurrence at the permanent Oklahoma City site of the WCWS, so extreme reshuffling of schedules can occur.

4. In softball, baserunners must stay on the bag until the pitcher releases the ball towards home plate. Thus, one does not see lead-offs or pick-off attempts characteristic of baseball. Steals are possible in softball, but I suspect they're much more rare than in baseball.

5. According to this overview of softball in the Wikipedia (a free online encyclopedia), "A player may be withdrawn from the game and then re-enter once." In baseball, of course, once someone is replaced (e.g., by being pinch-hit or pinch-run for), he cannot come back into the game.

Concluding Note

For those of you who really want to delve into the regulations of NCAA softball, the official NCAA rulebook can be accessed by clicking here. A warning though: It is a 242-page PDF document, which could take a lot of time to come in on your computer!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Welcome to my new blog on women's college softball. Given my connections to UCLA (as an undergraduate), the University of Michigan (as a graduate student), and Texas Tech University (as a faculty member), my focus will be on NCAA Division I softball in the Big 10, Big 12, and Pacific 10 conferences, as noted at the top of the page.

As documented in this chart, all but two of the 24 NCAA Women's College World Series (WCWS) softball competitions to date have been won by teams from the aforementioned three conferences (10 alone by UCLA, excluding one that was vacated for infractions).

Further, five of the eight teams in last year's World Series were from the Pac 10 (UCLA, California, and Arizona), Big 10 (Michigan), and Big 12 (Texas). The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is improving its profile in softball, with Tennessee and Alabama making last year's WCWS (Alabama also made it to a regional final against UCLA in 2004, which I attended while visiting in L.A.). I will augment my coverage of the SEC this year, as needed. The final team in the 2005 WCWS was Chicago's DePaul, formerly in Conference USA and now in the Big East.

Having Michigan and UCLA play in last year's NCAA championship round was, of course, softball nirvana for me. I have, however, followed the sport going back many years, so I'm not just a "Johnny Come Lately" to college softball. Also, under second-year Coach Teresa Wilson (who previously guided the University of Washington to six WCWS appearances), the Texas Tech softball team is showing signs of life, recently splitting double-headers with each of two nationally ranked Big 12 teams, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

In just 12 days (Thursday, April 20), I will be heading out to Texas Tech's softball stadium as the University of Texas comes into town for a conference double-header. Led by 6-foot-2 left-handed star pitcher Cat Osterman, a member of the 2004 U.S. gold medal Olympic team and now a senior, the Longhorns are looking to make the WCWS for the third time in the last four years (Osterman redshirted in 2004 to concentrate on preparations for the Olympics). Texas is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation in a pair of polls (see links in the upper-right portion of this page).

That's enough for now. Keep visiting during the season! In the meantime, you can check out the links to other softball sites I've provided.