The Minnesota Gophers Softball team will begin its quest to prove the NCAA Softball Committee wrong Friday afternoon at 1:30 against Louisiana Tech in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The #16 seed Alabama Crimson Tide will play Albany at 4:00 in their first game. Not to slight Louisiana Tech or Albany, but by far the Gophers and Crimson Tide are the class of the regional. Its most likely that the Gophers will need to get past the Tide twice to advance to the Super Regionals, and vice versa for Alabama. To preview the Crimson Tide, we asked Cyndee Bowers of our Alabama blog Roll Bama Roll a few questions on the Alabama Softball team. I answered a few of her questions as well and you can find my answers here.
TDG: Alabama finished the season on a 6-9 clip including losing four of their last five at home. Is that just do to their really competitive schedule or are the tide sliding into the tournament at the moment?
RBR: Alabama ended the season with some tough series, they lost two at #8 seed Tennessee, dropped two to #6 seed Washington at home, went to Oxford and ran into the slap and run #12 seed Ole Miss 'Cinderebels' and lost two of three. They finished the season against #7 seed Auburn and again lost the series. I would say that is an extremely competitive schedule.
That being said, this hasn’t been Alabama’s best team or even a typical Tide team. The two players with the best batting average went down to injuries. The first Merris Schroeder (.319) is back playing but isn’t the same since her concussion, and Demi Turner who broke an occipital bone and suffered a concussion in a freak accident is back but only as a pinch runner. The offense has been anemic against decent opponents and Alabama has had to squeak out wins relying solely on the arms of ace Alexis Osorio and Sydney Littlejohn. I think the pressure of a lack of run support has gotten to both pitchers this year. It’s a shame the hitters haven’t had their back. So yes, I think Alabama is sliding into the tournament.
TDG: The Gophers have the 2nd best ERA in the country while Alabama is #10. Are you expecting a few really low scoring games between the two teams?
RBR: These better be low scoring games or unless some happy hitting miracles happen for the Tide, or the Minnesota pitcher(s) have a bad day, it could spell doom for Bama.
TDG: Alexis Osorio is leading the nation in hits allowed per game--tell me more about her. Can she be expected to pitch back to back games?
RBR: Alexis a junior from Riverside California has perhaps the nastiest rise ball in all of college softball. She is 21-7, thanks to poor run support, has an ERA of 1.29 and has struck out almost half the 600 plus batters she has faced. Consider that! Pretty amazing pitcher. She has tended a bit this year toward too much ball placement and has walked many more batters (93) than in seasons past. Lexi is a fierce competitor and is usually tougher to hit with runners on than with the bases empty. I highly doubt Murphy would pitch her in back to back games. I expect Littlejohn to start Friday’s game and Lexi will pitch Saturday. Then probably a mix of both. Made Moore is a sophomore lefty who may get some innings. She is a fastball pitcher.
TDG: What is the Tide's greatest liability? Their greatest strength?
RBR: Alabama has not been able to put it together offensively. They average around four runs a game, but have been shut out a number of times this season. The greatest liability is an inability to come up with timely hits, stringing hits together, and getting runners home. That being said two freshman seem to be finding their footing of late. Elyssa Brown is terrific in centerfield. She (.317) bats lead-off and seems to be coming into her own and finding her way on base. Once on she is fleet of foot and is 28 of 31 on stolen base attempts. Bailey Hemphill plays first and is a power-hitter who will be a star one season soon for the Tide. She is batting (.324) has 8 HRs, and 39 RBI. Which sounds low, but SEC pitching is fairly stellar. Reagan Dykes is a spark-plug behind the plate and has a quick release to cut down base thieves.
The greatest strengths are Osorio and senior pitcher Sydney Littlejohn (15-8) with an ERA of 1.36. She has struck out 172 batters with what experts say may be the best curve ball in the country. Her east-west style complements Osorio’s up and down pitching. The sell out crowds should be loud and rowdy.
TDG: So us midwesterners keep hearing about the high and mighty SEC. I mean...the team that didn't make your conference tournament still made the NCAA Tournament. Why is the SEC rewarded for beating each other up?
RBR: That is a good argument, and I’m not on the selection committee. By batting average, Georgia is one of the best hitting teams in the country. They made the World Series last year and are a gritty team. (The reward for beating up each other is reminiscent of the conversation surrounding SEC football annually.) The regionals will sort out who belongs and who doesn’t.
TDG: Patrick Murphy has one of the best coaching credentials in the country. What makes him so good and such a good fit for Alabama?
RBR: Patrick Murphy built the Alabama softball program and in 2012 led the Tide to the SEC’s first victory in the WCWS. He is laid back in the dugout and seems to have a good relationship with his players, but has vigorously fought for better facilities for softball players across the board. I figure if he retired he could be the NCAA softball czar. I don’t see the fire in his belly this year, which worries me. He seems a bit detached.
TDG: Who do you think will advance to probably play Florida next weekend?
RBR: I have to go with my Alabama Crimson Tide. I never bet against them in any sport. And we who wear crimson colored glasses keeping hoping the bats will ‘come around.’ Roll Tide!
Assuming both Minnesota and Alabama win their opening games, they would face off for the first time at 1:30 on Saturday.