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WCWS Game 10: All-Americans Do All-American Things, Send Tennessee to Semifinals

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This time, Karen Weekly won’t face any questions about the choice of starting pitchers. Except, perhaps, who gets the ball in Monday’s semifinal against Florida State. With its season on the line Sunday, Tennessee earned the right to look ahead. And the chance to play another day. 

Bouncing back from a run-rule loss a day earlier, Tennessee beat Oklahoma State 3-1 in a elimination game between two programs that have experience more than enough World Series heartbreak through the years. Surprisingly not a part of the previous day’s game against top-seeded Oklahoma, All-American fifth-year ace Ashley Rogers got to pitch. And pitch. And pitch some more.

Backed by a defense that ranged from expertly efficient to downright dazzling, Rogers threw her 13th complete game of the season. 

“I worked to get here ,and I know that i have the tools to go out and execute,” Rogers said. 

She was also quick to credit the defense. Like fielding percentage, errors are a somewhat inefficient and blunt way to measure defensive performance. But they still tell a reasonable story when it comes to the role defense has played en route to SEC regular season and tournament titles and now a place in the WCWS semifinals. 

Tennessee ranks 30th nationally in fielding percentage, good but behind both Oklahoma and Stanford among semifinal teams. And while they ranked near the top of the SEC, the Lady Vols still committed more errors than Missouri and South Carolina. But Tennessee committed 18 of its 39 errors in April, including 11 in one six-game stretch. They committed just six in May and haven’t committed one yet through the first two days (and games) in June. At their best, they are much better than even the 30th-best defense in the country. And they have been at their best of late. 

Sunday, as Oklahoma State pitchers Kelly Maxwell and Lexi Kilfoyl tried to overcome three errors behind them, Rogers had flawless support. That took the form of highlight plays like Kiki Milloy’s diving catch in the second inning and Mackenzie Donihoo’s fearless foray into left field in the third inning, making a catch even as she collided with Rylie West.

“They’re incredible,” Rogers said. “I just have every bit of confidence in them, and I know they’re going to go out and give me everything they have every single time on every single play. They just go all out. They’re absolutely incredible.

“I’m so spoiled in the aspect [that] I feel like they’re going to get to every single ball. I just love playing with them on that field.”

But it also took the form of perfectly executed fundamentals, like the relay that made Oklahoma State pay for a gamble on the bases in the fourth inning. From second baseman Destiny Rodriguez’s relay to Giulia Koutsoyanopulos’ tag, the play wasn’t close because Tennessee didn’t let it be close.

“Every single day, we work that play,” Weekly said. “They ran it as pretty close to perfection as you could. G, that’s one of the reasons G’s behind the plate. She’s just a phenomenal defensive player.

“The way she picked the ball. The way she made sure she’s never in the way of the base runner, obstructing or anything, and puts a tag on. That was cool.”

Tennessee’s offense wasn’t quite as quick to bounce back from disappointment a day earlier. Facing Maxwell and Kilfoyl might have had a little something to do with that. The Lady Vols only managed three hits against the Cowgirls—matching what would have been their lowest total in a game in two months, if not for getting one-hit by Oklahoma on Saturday. But with Milloy setting the tone in taking what was given—and then taking some more—they got the runs they needed. 

If Tennessee forces a second game tomorrow, or even if needs a boost to try and force that game, you get the feeling Rogers will find a way to be back out there Monday evening. But just as Tennessee pitching depth did Rogers a favor all season by limiting her innings, she did the rest of the staff by giving them a day off Sunday. Payton Gottshall has thrown just three innings in the World Series and 10 innings in the last two weeks. And controversial though the decision was to start Karlyn Pickens against Oklahoma, Weekly now has the option of calling on a ridiculously talented freshmen who won’t be throwing her first, nervous World Series innings.

“Once Ashley goes out there, it’s really not going to do us a lot of good to pull her early and try to save anything—plus, she’s so darn good,” Weekly said. “But I just felt like she got stronger and stronger. She threw a lot of pitches, like she said she typically does. To get that kind of outing out of her today was fantastic. Really I’m happy that we didn’t have to throw Payton today. We’ll have a very fresh Payton for tomorrow.”

For Oklahoma State, a fourth consecutive trip to the World Series ends shy of the title series for the fourth year in a row. No program has been to the World Series more often without a title than the one from Stillwater, but the Cowgirls are still looking for their first appearance in either a championship game or series. 

How it happened

Top of the second: In the first inning, Oklahoma State’s Rachel Becker and Tennessee’s Kiki Milloy did what they do better than just about anyone—reach base. But neither team made any use of the opportunity afforded to make a quick statement. No problem. If Milloy couldn’t create a run, at least for the time being, she instead denied a potential run-in-the-making with a web gem. The do-everything centerfielder robbed Micaela Wark of a sure double with a diving catch in left-center. 

Bottom of the second: Of the two All-Americans in the circle, Oklahoma State’s Kelly Maxwell actually started the stronger. Maxwell retired the Lady Vols in order in the second, the first time either pitcher made it through an inning without a runner. Able to work up and down in the zone early, Maxwell threw 16 fewer pitches than Rogers through the first two innings. 

Bottom of the third, part I: Maxwell retired her sixth consecutive batter to open the inning, but that turned the order over and brought Milloy back into play. Tennessee’s star drew a five-pitch walk, the first of the day against a pitcher for whom that can be a weakness. Milloy stole second on the next pitch, her 40th stolen base of the season (in 41 attempts). That, in turn, put her in position to score comfortably when Zaida Puni went the other way and lined a double off the right field fence. The nation’s home run leader has gone six games without going yard. She’s arguably the nation’s best player because it hardly matters. Tennessee 1-0. 

Bottom of the third, part II: Tennessee kept picking at Maxwell after Puni’s big hit and added a second run when Rylie West drove in Brylee Mesusan—who pinch ran for Puni. Mesusan briefly broke stride after rounding third, but an errant throw allowed her to score easily. West’s hit marked the end of the line for Maxwell, replaced by Lexi Kilfoyl. The new arrival walked the bases loaded with still just one out but promptly worked out of the jam. Tennessee 2-0.

Top of the fourth: Kilfoyl gave the Cowgirls a chance by stranding the bases loaded, but a base running miscue cost them an opportunity to capitalize in the fourth. After reaching on a two-out single, Micaela Wark ran through Oklahoma State coach Kenny Gajewski’s stop sign trying to score on Tallen Edwards’ double. A good relay by freshman second baseman Destiny Rodriguez beat Wark for the third out, and replay officials quickly dismissed Oklahoma State’s challenge. 

Top of the fifth: With some help from Tennessee pressure, Oklahoma State continued to make its own comeback bid more difficult. The Lady Vols added an insurance run without the benefit of a hit. Puni reached on Becker’s leadoff error, moved to second on the fifth walk of the night by OSU pitchers and advanced to third when the Cowgirls just missed turning a double play. And after Rylie West beat out that potential double play and took off for second in the next at-bat, Puni raced home when Oklahoma State catcher Taylor Tuck threw to second base. Tennessee 3-0. 

Top of the sixth: Already in triple digits in pitches but still getting outs, Rogers returned to the field to face the heart of Oklahoma State’s order. In doing so, the fifth-year pitcher also faced two players similarly trying to extend their college careers: Chyenne Factor and Kiley Naomi. She got them. She didn’t get Morgyn Wynne. The former Kansas transfer’s deep drive down the left field line gave Oklahoma State its first home run of the week—eliminated Utah was the only other team yet to hit a home run. But with her 121st pitch of the night, Rogers struck out Katelynn Carwile to snuff out any further rally. Tennessee 3-1.

Top of the seventh: The bullpen was closed for the night. Rogers returned for the seventh and set the Cowgirls down in order for the third time in the game. She threw 136 pitches and allowed just four hits and two walks.

Up next

The Lady Vols earned the right to play another day, but getting to Wednesday won’t be easy. Tennessee must win twice against Florida State to reach the championship series for the first time since 2013. The teams met a year ago, with Florida State easing to a 9-3 win in the St. Pete-Clearwater Elite Invitational. But it’s worth noting that none of Tennessee’s current top three pitchers appeared in that game (Payton Gottshall and Karlyn Pickens weren’t yet on the team), and Florida State ace Kathryn Sandercock only pitched the final inning.