The Women's College World Series isn't as big as Major League Baseball. But if it were, there would probably be a big outcry over the calling of illegal pitches. For softball fans, these calls were akin to the "imperfect" call that prevented Detroit Tiger Armando Galarraga from recording a perfect game.
Florida Gator coach Tim Walton hinted that he felt the same sentiment. He saw six illegal pitches called against his team in Thursday's opener (a 16-3 loss to UCLA). Walton avoided the illegal pitch question, instead responding with this:
"I think that kid Galarraga threw one heck of a game yesterday for Detroit," Walton said.
It's probably still a bit of an over exaggeration to compare the two, but you have to admit that it has put a little bit of a damper on some of the festivities.
The closest comparison off the top of my head is to NFL penalties for celebrating. It's not a perfect comparison, but hear me out.
When a player scores a touchdown and celebrates, it really doesn't have an effect on the game. It certainly doesn't warrant a yellow flag. When a softball pitcher's foot comes a few inches off the ground, it really doesn't give the pitcher an advantage. It certainly doesn't warrant a ball, pitching another pitch, and advancing the runner.
You know all football wide receivers grew up learning to celebrate when they put six on the board. It's natural to be excited when you do something that doesn't happen that often in a game.
And you know that all softball pitchers learned how to pitch this way when they were growing up. If you really look at it, you will probably see every pitcher do it at least once a game. It's a pretty natural motion too, when you are putting that much force behind the pitch, to have your foot come off the ground.
You never know exactly how the celebration rule is going to be called. Some guys will do a mini-celebration and draw a yellow flag, while other players will get away with more, depending on the crew calling the shots.
The same with softball. Some umps enforce the rule like a dictator, calling it every chance they get. Sometimes this is a lot, as was the case with Michigan's Jordan Taylor, who earlier this season had 33 called against her in one game. That's a little bit overboard on the enforcement, ump. And some umps don't even bother calling them.
Maybe the biggest problem with the rule is the disparity with which it has been called this season.
An even bigger one is that it is being called for the wrong reasons. It's supposed to stop the "crow hop" before a pitch, something that is supposed to give a huge advantage to the pitcher.
Honestly, I don't really see a crow hop occurring before these pitches. Just a little air between the foot and the ground.
And really, do you think the offenses these days need any more help? UCLA put up 16 runs, Tennessee put up nine, and Georgia put up six (against Danielle Lawrie, no less). This ain't your old-school 1-0 softball anymore. These girls can flat-out hit the ball.
Now it's time to give the pitchers some of their edge back. You can do this by putting a stop to this illegal pitch nonsense, NCAA.
The pitchers have enough to think about with all those brutal lineups coming at them. They don't need to focus all their attention on where their foot lands before the pitch.
I'm sure that takes away a little bit of their effectiveness, or at least some of their mental edge. Florida's Stephanie Brombacher had four before being pulled and Arizona's Kenzie Fowler had eight. Both teams lost handily, but you have to wonder if the pitchers lost some composure trying to adjust their game to the abundance of these calls. Neither team probably would have won, but I would have liked to see something a little bit closer.
I'm not saying calling this less would fix the trick, but at least as fans we could be happy with some umpiring efficiency (oxymoron?) for once.
Well, that's my two cents on that topic, now a few quick hits from Day 1 of the WCWS.
Florida isn't the same team as last year
If you've read any of my articles on softball in the past week, you know my focus is on Florida. Sorry, but I covered the team for the last two years, so I feel like I should keep my focus on an area I have a little bit of knowledge in.
And I can tell you that, illegal pitches or not, this isn't the same Florida team we saw last year.
Believe me, I'd love to see them turn it around. I'm not saying this for homer-ism, but for the fact that they are a team with a bunch of great people on it. I'm sure that's true with other teams in this field, as well, but I know this for a fact.
But facts are facts. Whether it's because there is no Stacey Nelson or for some other reason, they weren't quite as dominant this year as last year. Of course, that's a pretty high standard to live up to.
I see a bounce-back win or two in the cards, but this team is poised to make a huge run next year. They only lose two seniors off this squad in Francesca Enea and Corrie Brooks.
I must say, I wasn't surprised Hawaii beat Alabama to get here. I know they were good last year, and I know Kelsi Dunne had the propensity for giving up the backbreaking home run.
But this squad has a magical feel about it.
A walk-off to beat the No. 1 team, Alabama, in the land two games after getting run-ruled by them is impressive. Doing it again with a two-run, game-winner in the seventh against Missouri?
Maybe there's something special going on here.
We will see tonight against softball's most successful team ever, UCLA.
Georgia is a bad matchup for Washington
I hesitated to call Alabama the "best" team in the preceding paragraph because I feel the defending champs are the team to beat.
Well at least I did until yesterday, when Georgia beat the Huskies 6-3.
I had a sneaking suspicion that this game would be tough for Washington after seeing last year's battle between the two squads (ironically, they were seeded exactly the same last year).
Washington won 3-1 in the opener before the teams met to decide who was going to play Florida for the national championship. Georgia won game one 9-8, before falling 9-3, which tends to happen when you have to fight through the losers' bracket.
Whether it was because Georgia saw Lawrie three times last year or it's just a bad matchup for the Huskies, I don't know if they are the favorites to win anymore (that distinction might belong to a hot UCLA squad, at least until tomorrow).
I'm not counting the Huskies out with Lawrie on their side, but fighting through the losers' bracket to win it all is a near-impossible feat, especially if they might have to beat Georgia twice to do it.
The SEC is once again taking strides in softball
The Pac-10 will probably always be king (or queen, I suppose) in softball, but the last few years the SEC has taken some big steps.
If you woke up from a coma and, assuming you knew something about softball beforehand, I told you this statement, you would have said, "Florida and Alabama are at it again, huh?"
Alabama isn't even at the big show, and Florida dropped their opener.
But Tennesee (9-0 over 'Zona) and Georgia picked up the slack.
The conference still has to bring home the crown before it can really start joining the conversation, but I like seeing that some good softball is played on this side of the country too.
Of course, now Georgia and Tennessee have to play each other tonight, so that reduces the SEC's odds of taking home the crown.
The conference had three out of the four finalists last year, and the trophy still went to the Pac-10. I still think they are pretty impressive strides.
Nobody's out yet
If there is any good news for the losers, it's that they are still alive.
They will have to go to hell and back to win it all, but they are still in it, so they can still win it.
The losers have to sit on their hands and watch the winners bracket play out tonight, and I know it's not an easy feeling having to think about a loss for that long.
Then, the fun begins.
The losers have to play on Saturday. If they win, they play again later that day. Then, they have to win a game against the best team in their bracket on Sunday afternoon, only to have to wait a few hours to play a rematch again that night.
Like I said, it's not going to be easy.
But this is what they have fought so hard for all year, so expect to see some dogfights this weekend.
OK, now this is a crap shoot (what sports prediction isn't?), but I have to give you some kind of reward for reading this far. And hey, you can tell me I'm wrong as soon as the first game is over.
Tonight : UCLA will win going away against Hawaii, and Georgia will beat Tennessee in a close, high-scoring affair.
Saturday : Florida wins one game before falling to Hawaii on another walk-off home run. Washington fights through the losers' bracket fairly easily.
Sunday : Hawaii brings back a little magic to take Game One from UCLA before falling in the second game. Washington gets a taste of their own medicine as Georgia takes them down in the third game, as well.
Finals : UCLA has won 18 of 20 after a five-game losing streak coming into the tournament, and they hold off the SEC for one more season, beating Georgia in three games.
Next year : The SEC finally breaks through and takes home the trophy, just don't ask me who I'm picking yet.