OKLAHOMA CITY — Florida and Oklahoma will take the field Tuesday in the Women’s College World Series having already played more innings in the championship round than 29 of the 35 previous winners of the tournament. Yet even for the Sooners, who are now a win away from a second consecutive championship and fourth overall, matters are far from settled.
Monday was, in other words, a long night at the office.
Although the Game 1 thriller won by the Sooners, which at 17 innings was the longest game in the history of the championship round, technically finished before midnight local time Monday, the resulting fatigue promises to cast a sizable shadow over all that transpires Tuesday. It is inescapable. It will define Game 2 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). As much as accounting for each other, both teams must also account for the toll, physical and emotional, of a game in which four pitchers threw at least 100 pitches, seven batters struck out at least three times and fielders combined to record 60 outs and just two errors.
“This is one of the greatest games, I think, in College World Series history,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said after the 7-5 win. “It was like two heavyweight fighters throwing punch after punch.”
Except heavyweight fighters usually take a few months off after going 12 rounds.
The challenge is most pressing for top-seeded Florida, which is trying to become the fourth team to win the title after losing the first game in the best-of-three final round and the seventh to force a third game, but neither team can be immune from the hangover.
It means that like so much about this series, and to some degree so much about a softball season in which offensive numbers across the country retreated, pitching will be in the spotlight.
Four of the best pitchers in the country — one the current national player of the year, another the reigning World Series Most Outstanding Player and all either All-Americans or junior national team members at some point — suffered the highs and lows more than most Monday. Florida’s Kelly Barnhill and Delanie Gourley and Oklahoma’s Paige Lowary and Paige Parker were all dominant for long stretches, the two Gators at times unhittable in striking out 26 batters. Yet each of the four also gave up hits that either tied the game or put her team behind.
Able to find some gallows humor after the most difficult of losses, Florida coach Tim Walton joked Monday night that it wasn’t all that difficult to manage the innings. In a typical three-game weekend series in the SEC, he noted, the Gators started Barnhill on a Friday and a Sunday and Gourley in the middle game on a Saturday. So he took the same approach Monday, with Barnhill pitching the first seven innings, Gourley the next eight innings and Barnhill returning for the final two innings. The “series” just happened within a five and a half hour span.
That underscores the problem both teams now face. As well stocked with pitching depth as any two finalists in the sport’s history, they nonetheless find themselves searching for fresh arms. Both Florida and Oklahoma are built for the future of softball, but it is still difficult to account for a present that includes a 17-inning marathon within a stretch of five games in six days.
It was like two heavyweight fighters throwing punch after punch.
A surprise non-starter, Parker had the lightest workload of the four pitchers in Game 1, although her 108 pitches still matched the most in her four WCWS appearances this season. Sooners freshman Mariah Lopez, who started an elimination game in the regional round two weeks ago, is, well, fresh. But Gasso said Monday she was reluctant to use a freshman under the circumstances of the evening. Neither the stakes nor stress will be any lower Tuesday night.
It will probably be Parker to start, but after a season of using a full pitching staff to great effect, it may also need to be her for the middle and end after Lowary threw 10 1/3 innings in Game 1.
The choice is less obvious for the Gators, and a mix-and-match approach more logical. The question is whether that remains a duet or expands to a trio. An All-American pitcher a year ago and the Game 1 winner in the championship round when Florida won the national title in 2015, Aleshia Ocasio has made just three brief pitching appearances in this year’s tournament, her role this season that of everyday outfielder or third baseman and very part-time pitcher.
But a year after Florida’s quest for three consecutive titles ended with Ocasio the hard-luck loser in a super regional, her return to the circle would be a worthy sequel to Monday’s drama.
If Game 1 proved anything, it was only that very little separates the two most successful softball programs of the past half-decade.
Which means that even after 17 innings, we may just be getting started.