By Alexander Haynes
After a brutal loss to the Boston College Eagles last Monday, the Texas State Bobcats softball team needed to rebound and refocus. The season may have just opened, but the opportunity for refinement was a necessity. Traveling to Tempe, Arizona for the Littlewood Classic was a process which demanded resiliency; resiliency which the Bobcats aptly lived out scoring 29 runs over five games. Admittedly, 22 of those runs came in two games against North Dakota, but the improvement in structure and cohesive run support was a note of support only buried underneath the incredible achievement of pitcher Randi Rupp: 1,024 career strikeouts to become the all-time Texas State softball leader.
Overcoming Illinois State
Regardless of the opponent, the Bobcats needed to exit their slump by proving they could overcome deficit and challenge. In an odd sort of way, battling in a close game may have been more important than winning a blowout. Rupp established the narrative in another complete game, facing 23 batters, striking out 13 and walking only one. Her formidable style will ensure the Bobcats have a chance in any game she plays.
The card trick is to let the Bobcats batting lineup define themselves in the same tone of play. Through the first inning, the Bobcats hit six foul balls, testing Illinois State pitcher Morgan Day. The fouls came to purpose in the second, when ArieAnn Bell hit a leadoff homerun. The homerun, however, was just a mere blip on the radar as both Day and Rupp would hold off the respective sides. It was not until the sixth inning when Shannon Felde hit a homerun off Rupp to deep center field.
The sixth inning was the hinge point of the game. Although it took five batters, the Bobcats finally scored the proverbial winning run. Hailey MacKay began with a leadoff single, followed by Ariel Ortiz bunting pinch runner Jaclyn Molenaar. A wild pitch and Tara Oltmann sacrifice fly-later, the process for a 2-1 victory concluded. Rupp finished the show in the seventh, and the Bobcats had momentum heading into the second game of their double header.
Back-to-back Against North Dakota
North Dakota may have been an odd foe for the Bobcats schedule to own, but over the next two days the chance to overcome unfamiliarity existed. Only several hours after the win over Illinois State concluded, Krista Jacobs was hoping to rebound in her second start, after going a mere 2.2 innings against Florida State.
While Jacobs did not go the distance, but she fought through 4.1 innings of pitching, giving up six hits and two runs. Only two strikeouts are a concern that her outings will be consistently short, but she was able to force ground outs. Hence, the Bobcats infield has an incredible onus this season to provide life support.
The batting lineup, however, stole the highlights of the North Dakota outing. The 11-2 victory began when Ortiz shot a two RBI double to center field. Only moments later, Ortiz would score the third run of the first on an opportune error from North Dakota.
The score would remain 3-0 until the top of the fifth when Ortiz hit another shot to center field, this time over the wall. Another error scored Christian McDowell in the sixth inning, and Ortiz’s prowess and intimidation on the plate was confirmed when she launched a homerun.
Despite getting six-innings the day before, the North Dakota lineup was not ready to quit. Jacobs received the start again, but continued to struggle allowing three runs on three hits and two walks before freshman McKenna Fryar provided relief in the second. Fryar went the remnant of the game allowing another three hits, but pitching to the zone for no walks and five strikeouts in 17 batters faced. Due to Jacobs struggles, observing her placement in the rotation will be an interesting aspect to a young season.
Fortunately, the Bobcats batting lineup was explosively dynamic for another day. Ortiz opened the doors with a sacrifice RBI which scored Bailee Carter. In the second, Carter returned the favor by driving in an RBI to score McDowell; a hit which set an aura of confidence over the Bobcats. No homeruns were needed as the Bobcats put up 11 runs with only one strikeout. It seemed only the fate of an unlucky bounce would end an inning.
Battling With the Power Five
The allure of battling a power-five conference is in the magic of the upset; a momentous turn of the clock for a team such as the Bobcats teetering on top-25 prominence. Further upside, even in a loss, the team on the outside can help their own perception by focusing on intricate details against well-rounded opponents. Playing a game against 18th ranked Arizona State early in the season stands to help the Bobcats learn down the stretch of the season; a process game more than a results game in the peculiar psychology which is softball.
The top of the first inning spoke to the principled play the Bobcats knew they would need as Kourtney Pock took a lead-off walk. Carter would walk just moments later to provide two runners on with only one out. MacKay singled to advance Carter, followed by Ortiz landing a sacrifice RBI to score Pock in completion of the exhausting process of run creation.
The pitching and fielding would need to provide the opportunity for the Bobcats lineup to win a low-scoring game. However, vanity in fielding set the tone when Kindra Hackbarth landed an in-field bunt. The importance of a leadoff bunt is the underlying notion more formulaic and studied teams have approached the Bobcats with. Rupp can fire at batters, but the fielding is prone to slipping and providing opportunity with sluggish infield mistakes. Two batters, a double and single later the Sun Devils were back up 2-1.
The first inning was a snapshot of the flow of the game. Texas State would struggle to find a groove batting, and Rupp had to work incredibly hard to stay ahead. The process would go an extra-inning, and Rupp still struck out 10 batters, but her 136 pitches were emblematic of how many times the Sun Devils toyed around with fouls (26) or store down a pitch for a ball (49).
The fourth inning for the Bobcats was their one chance to take another lead after MacKay shot a homerun into deep center field. Walks and errant pitches advanced runners and created more chaos. Yet, there is no award for getting on base without scoring – three opportunities from three runners left on base were wasted.
The downtrodden note in the 4-3 extra inning loss, even after scoring a potential game-winning in the top of the eight, is a bit of a misnomer. By the end of the game, the Bobcats indeed found a way to create a process of scoring and systemic batting. As a team, they relied on establishing process and were confident in their approach.
The two limiting statistics were seen in 13 swings and misses – most coming at crucial moments in the fourth and eight innings once runners got on base. The allure of the homerun and a quick process must be replaced with the allure of patient process that put players on base. The second dysfunction point was seen in their lack of bunts. McDowell and Mari Cranek both landed successful bunts, but both were lead offs and did not advance runners. The art of the sacrifice comes down to precision and a bit of chance the infield is a millisecond slow, but in 2017 it was an art that helped the Bobcats advance runners and could have been the difference against Arizona State.
Finishing Against San Diego
The best summation of the Arizona State game was a lack of finishing purpose. Against San Diego, the Bobcats would finish both the game and their trip to the desert in style. Rupp would go another exquisite seven innings, holding the Toreros to one run. Another 10 strikeouts also put Rupp in company alone – 1,024 career strikeouts making her the all-time leader in Texas State softball history. A phenomenal record that speaks to her combination of deception and austerity.
The 2-1-win left room for more batting production, but the top of the sixth which provided the winning run was the production note needed. MacKay led off with a nine-pitch walk, allowing for Meagan King to pinch run. Ortiz may not be ripping the ball through and through, but her team-leading nine RBIs epitomize her importance. A sacrifice bunt to advance King to third is exactly the kind of process the Bobcats need. Oltmann sent a rocket into right field, netting a triple while scoring King to clinch the game.
The dedication to advancing efficiency and adhering to identity has carried the Bobcats this far. In their losses, they average 10 swings and misses, while averaging 4.5 in their wins. Furthermore, in each of their wins they have at least one bunt which advanced runners. The second outing against Florida State was the only game in which they did not at least single with a bunt. That systemic approach must be sustained as the team heads to Florida to play in the FAU’s Strike-out Cancer Tournament, starting on Friday afternoon with a game against Columbia.