Being the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA softball tournament adds extra attention and pressure to the equation.
Or maybe not.
Oregon, the team to beat in the 2018 bracket, was confident and relaxed behind the scenes leading into the four-team, double-elimination regional, and it showed on the field as the Ducks (50-7) cruised through the opposition with dominant pitching and timely hitting.
“We don’t really drink our own Kool-Aid in this situation,” sophomore centerfielder Shannon Rhodes said last week. “We’re just kicking it, playing some softball.”
During victories over Albany (4-0) and Drake (5-0 and 3-0), which improved coach Mike White’s record to 27-0 in regional play, starting pitchers Miranda Elish (22-1) and Megan Kleist (21-5) combined to allow no runs, two walks and 10 hits with 36 strikeouts over 21 innings.
Both Elish and Kleist have 0.92 earned-run averages entering the best-of-three super regional against 16th-seeded Kentucky at Jane Sanders Stadium.
“They’re good,” White noted. “We have three special pitchers on this staff.”
— Oregon Softball (@OregonSB) May 21, 2018
Oregon hasn’t allowed a run over the past 30 innings, dating back to the regular season, which ended with a 2-0 victory at California to clinch the outright Pac-12 championship.
Maggie Balint was given the start in Berkeley and was about to be called out of the bullpen to close out the regional, until Elish talked White out of the move.
“Coach just said, ‘I’m going to bring Maggie in.’ And I said, ‘No, I got this,'” Elish said. “If Maggie came in, she was going to shut them down. He was right, they were starting to put the ball in play more, and I wasn’t executing my pitches as well as I could have.
“It just gave me a sense that I needed to buckle down.”
Drake finished the game 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position against Elish, who was named the most valuable player of the regional. A single with two outs in the seventh inning of the first game against the Bulldogs prevented Kleist from pitching a perfect game.
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“They’re really good at changing speeds and they weren’t very predictable,” Drake sophomore shortstop Mandi Roemmich, who hit .356 for the season, said of the challenge of facing a staff that essentially has two aces. “They’re both very good, but they’re different. …
— Hayden Herrera (@haydenherrera) May 22, 2018
“(Kleist) was just very good at moving the ball around, and then (Elish) had higher velocity. Two different pitchers, but they were both tough.”
White said he believes that Balint, who struggled with a back injury for most of the regular season after a phenomenal freshman year, would also have “matched up very well” with Drake’s lineup.
“I think (Balint) was ready to come in, and I was very close,” White said. “Miranda wanted the ball, she wanted to stay out there, and I look for that. It was in her eyes. She wanted it, she wanted to stay out there and finish the thing. I’m real proud that she did.”
Seemingly every move White made during the regional worked.
In the first two games, true freshman Lauren Burke pinch-hit in the fifth inning and belted a two-run home run in her first two career postseason at-bats.
But in a scoreless game, Rhodes was left in to face Nicole Powell after the Drake ace allowed back-to-back singles by Mia Camuso and Lauren Lindvall.
“One thing people don’t know about Lauren, she’s not a very good bunter, and we needed a bunt,” White said. “So I thought I’d roll the dice with Shannon, and she got it down, she did a good job.”
Rhodes put down a successful sacrifice bunt, Jenna Lilley was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Alexis Mack (two-run single) and Haley Cruse (RBI single) came through.
“I work a lot on one ball, two balls, three balls off the plate, and they’re just a disciplined team and just getting their bat out of those tough pitches that usually I can get people to swing and miss on,” said Newman, whose ERA went from 0.61 to 0.89 after giving up seven runs to the Ducks over two games.
Oregon will face Kentucky in a regional for the second consecutive season.
— Oregon Softball (@OregonSB) May 20, 2018
Kleist threw a three-hit shutout with eight strikeouts and no walks in a 4-0 victory to begin last year’s series. Nikki Udria and Camuso each came through with two-run hits during a four-run seventh inning as the Ducks rallied for a 6-5 victory to clinch a spot in the Women’s College World Series.
The Wildcats (34-19) don’t plan to feel any pressure as they get another chance to spoil the postseason party at Jane Sanders Stadium.
“Personally, I think we always play well as the underdog,” Kentucky pitcher Erin Rethlake said after her team clinched the NCAA Lexington Regional with an 8-0 victory over Notre Dame on Sunday. “It’s fun to be the underdog. Nobody expects us to come out and (win). It’s not about Oregon, it’s about us. The way we just played this weekend, it never was about Notre Dame or Michigan or UIC. It was about us. I think that’s the same mentality that we (take to) Oregon.”
This article is written by Ryan Thorburn from The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.