Teams face elimination day in losers' bracket
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Even in a ballcap, Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine looks a little like the actor Ben Stiller. Something painful usually befalls Stiller in his better-known films, and Earleywine has known his share of hurt the last three years at the Women's College World Series.
Two quick losses and out in 2009. Ditto in 2010. Things were supposed to be different this year with standout sophomore pitcher Chelsea Thomas, a national player of the year finalist, heading an experienced Tigers lineup.
But Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Florida pounded Thomas for eight hits and homered twice in a 6-2 victory that left Missouri a ghastly 1-11 in five appearances at the WCWS since 1983. And it dropped the Tigers into a familiar place -- the losers' bracket, facing elimination Saturday.
"I don't know what to do," Earleywine said. "Even if it's wrong, I usually have a plan. I don't have one."
Baylor coach Glenn Moore might have been overly dramatic when he said, "With double-elimination tournaments, if you get in the losers' bracket, it's almost a death sentence." But the format of the WCWS pretty much guarantees that any team that loses the first or second day is toast.
Just to make the best-of-three final, teams in the losers' bracket who lost the first day must win four games, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. Since 2000, only two teams have won the tournament from the losers' bracket -- UCLA in 2003, when the final was a single game, and Arizona in 2007 after the format switched to a series.
Winning four straight under any conditions is tough enough. But if the weather forecast holds, the day games this weekend will be played in mid-90s heat. That's brutal for any pitcher, and especially one as talented as Thomas, who will be expected to pitch every inning.
Saturday, Cal (44-12) and Oklahoma State (42-19) might get a break playing first at 11 a.m. local time, noon in the East. But the day will be at full broil when Missouri (52-9) faces Big 12 rival Oklahoma (41-18) at 2:30 p.m. ET.
Missouri beat the Sooners twice at home in April. However, given the numerous Oklahoma flags in the parking lot Friday when the Sooners weren't even playing, the Tigers will not be the darling of the crowd. If Missouri wins, they'll play Saturday night against another Big 12 opponent, Baylor, which lost 3-0 to Alabama on Friday.
This is not even close to what Earleywine had in mind this week. Before the tournament, trying to explain his team's fast exits the last two years, Earleywine said, "The lights have been a little too bright for us."
Maybe they still are.
"These players are very talented physically and they've proven that for the last three years," Earleywine said. "But for whatever reason, when we get to the College World Series, they don't allow themselves to play the way they are capable of playing.
"We had some really good opportunities with runners in scoring position [Thursday] and the right people up, and just looked like we were from a different planet. Almost unrecognizable."
He left the stadium Thursday unsure if the team would even practice Friday. They wound up at a local batting cage, according to a Missouri spokesman.
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy knows Missouri's predicament too well. His Crimson Tide had lost six consecutive first-day games since 2000 before finally breaking through this week.
Friday, Kelsi Dunne and Jackie Traina combined for their second shutout in two days to beat Baylor 3-0, giving the Tide 30 consecutive scoreless innings in NCAA tournament play. With Saturday off, one more victory Sunday puts them in the finals for the first time -- a nice run for a team that rallied back after losing its super regional opener to Stanford.
"It's something new," Murphy said. "I hope we handle it well."
Meanwhile, Florida's route to the final took an unexpected turn with a 6-5 walk-off loss to Arizona State late Friday night that left the Gators' pitching unsettled for Saturday.
Stephanie Brombacher, the senior standout who hasn't been the same since missing a month with an injured biceps, lasted only one inning and committed a throwing error that led to two runs. The high toss, to second for a possible force, bounced all the way to the center-field fence. "I made the wrong decision, and it cost my team the game," she said.
Gator followers suspect something is still wrong with Brombacher's arm. Brombacher went 42-0 in her first two years as a Gator, and was working on an equally remarkable senior season (14-0, 0.67 ERA) when she got hurt. Since her return April 16, Brombacher hasn't pitched a complete seven-inning game in any of her 14 starts while going 5-2 with a 2.34 ERA.
In both games at the WCWS, Florida coach Tim Walton started Brombacher but brought in sensational freshman Hannah Rogers at the first sign of trouble.
Friday, Rogers threw 139 pitches over 5 2/3 innings of relief while allowing three runs and walking a season-high eight.
It's not clear whether Brombacher could pitch twice in one day if it comes to that Sunday. When Florida faced UCLA twice on May 22 in the Gainesville Regional, Brombacher started the first game and Rogers finished the 3-2 loss. Rogers followed with a five-inning mercy-rule victory, 11-3.