At the Women’s College World Series on Monday, No. 9 Stanford did what very, very few teams have managed to do so far this year: It pushed No. 1 Oklahoma to its limit.
Even at its limit, however, Oklahoma is still … Oklahoma. It took extra innings. It involved the kind of pitching duel that has rarely been required this year for the Sooners, who lead the nation both in batting average and slugging percentage. But it still ended the way most games do for Oklahoma—which is to say, of course, with a win.
After nine innings, the final score was Oklahoma 4, Stanford 2, marking the end of the road for the Cardinal and punching a ticket to the championship series for the Sooners. The victory extends their record win streak to 51 games (51!), sends them to their fourth consecutive championship series at the WCWS and gives them an opportunity to capture a third straight title.
Here are three quick thoughts on the win for Oklahoma:
Jordy Bahl is fierce
The Sooners’ pitching staff is an embarrassment of riches. Their three primary pitchers, Nicole May, Bahl and Alex Storako all have ERAs under 1.15. (Yes, that puts all three in the top 10 in Division I.) That can make the question of who to start when a legitimate puzzle.
Bahl started in the circle for each of the Sooners’ first two WCWS games. But they were looking at potentially needing to play two games Monday: In this double-elimination round, if Oklahoma had lost to Stanford in the first game, a second one would have followed an hour later. So Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso turned to May to start the first game, planning to throw Bahl in relief and, hypothetically, to start her for the second. But her pitchers made sure that second game stayed a hypothetical.
May executed well. After giving up a two-run home run in a messy first inning, she locked in, and she did not allow another base runner for the next four frames. But her day was done when she allowed a single to lead off the top of the sixth. It was time for Bahl.
The sophomore never exactly provides what one would call a comfortable viewing experience: Stalking around the circle, Bahl’s trademark intensity radiates through every pitch.She made it especially tense Monday. She allowed at least one base runner in each inning she pitched until the ninth and final one. But every jam she got into ended in an escape. In four scoreless innings of work, Bahl struck out six and stranded five Stanford runners.
“Those are the moments they don't forget,” Gasso said. “The ones that are pressure filled are the ones that they embrace, and Jordy is just—she’s made that way. I don’t know a better way to say it. She loves it.”
Tiare Jennings (and the rest of Oklahoma) can make the adjustment
The Oklahoma second baseman started this game in uncharacteristic fashion: 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. (Jennings entered Monday hitting .433 with 17 home runs.) Both of those strikeouts came against Stanford phenom NiJaree Canady. The freshman pitcher came into the game in relief in the fifth, and Jennings initially looked overpowered, especially by her riseball. But she was keyed in throughout—trying to figure out how she could eventually break down the pitch.
“That was something that everyone could see,” said Oklahoma super-senior Grace Lyons. “She was spinning it really well, getting people to chase on that up-ball. We just needed to make an adjustment to get on top of it.”
Lyons led off the ninth inning against Canady. She squared up the second pitch she saw for a double.
The next two batters made contact—no small feat against Canady—but grounded out. That put Lyons on second with two outs and Oklahoma’s leadoff hitter, Jayda Coleman, due up. Coleman had homered once Monday off Stanford starter Alana Vawter; Jennings was behind her, strikeouts in each of her last two at bats, sitting on that 0-for-4. Stanford decided to intentionally walk Coleman to get to Jennings.
“It kind of didn’t matter to me,” Jennings said. “Either way, I was going to have to find a way to either get on or help my team as best I can.”
Jennings had spent the last few innings trying to figure out Canady’s riseball. She’d especially been talking to right fielder Alynah Torres, the first player to get a hit off Canady, with a leadoff double in the seventh inning. And when she came up in the ninth, game on the line, she felt confident in her ability to see the pitch.
“Just being able to [say], ‘Hey, what did you see? What can I adjust to do better?’ I think just talking to each other, watching their great at bats,” Jennings said.
She fouled off a few to stay alive. Then, in an 0–2 count, Jennings sent one to right field—a two-run double to take the lead.
“Tiare has this ability to get locked in like nobody I’ve ever seen as well,” Gasso said. “Her swing just looked kind of easy. It looked pretty free and easy and ran right into it at the right time.”
Canady is one hell of a pitcher
This thought is neither new nor particularly original. But it’s worth recording: What Canady did in her two postseason appearances this year against Oklahoma is simply incredible. Yes, she was tagged with the loss in both games. But the National Freshman of the Year did a phenomenal job handling the best offense in the sport.
Canady entered postseason play having allowed more than one run only once. (That was on May 7 against Washington: Canady faced the Huskies again in the WCWS on Sunday and threw a complete-game shutout with nine strikeouts.) She was able to keep doing more or less the same against the best competition in the sport. In her first game against the Sooners—last Thursday—she held them scoreless until the sixth. On Monday, working in relief under all the pressure of win or go home, she struck out six and flummoxed some of the best hitters in the country.
Perhaps the best way to put it is this: The Sooners averaged 3.0 runs in their two postseason games against Stanford. They’ve averaged 10.9 in their other six postseason games so far. The Sooners still came out on top. But Canady managed to make their otherworldly offense look pedestrian—however briefly.
“None of this is a surprise to us,” Stanford coach Jessica Allister said. “We’ve watched her all along and we’ve watched her in the best conferences in the country as a freshman come in and just be lights out. … It’s great to see the rest of the country catching on to what we’ve known from the start.”