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WCWS Game 11: Sooners Catch a Rising Star, Slip Past Stanford to Reach Championship Series

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It was the right move. It made sense. All the statistics demanded that Stanford do it. 

But darned if it doesn’t sometimes feel as if the softball gods take it personally when you poke them in the eye. And intentionally walking Jayda Coleman in the ninth inning to face Tiare Jennings, a three-time All-American just two RBIs shy of matching the WCWS career record? 

On her birthday? 

That was a poke in the eye of all that is ineffably beautiful about postseason softball. 

And you knew what was coming next. 

Jennings’ two-strike, two-out, two-run double off otherwise sensational Stanford freshman NiJaree Canady gave Oklahoma the only lead it would need in Monday’s WCWS semifinal. With a 4-2 win in nine innings, the Sooners avoided an extra game and advanced directly to the best-of-three championship series that begins Wednesday night. 

“I didn’t know they were going to do that to Jayda,” Jennings said. “It kind of didn’t matter to me. Either way, I was going to have to find a way to either get on or help my team as best I can. We talk about not being result oriented, and that’s exactly what happened today. I didn’t get the results I wanted earlier, and so what? I’m going to step in there and keep on swinging.”

Monday’s game was a classic long before the final act in extra innings. Stanford jumped out to an early lead on Kylie Chung’s two-run second inning home run, but the Sooners pulled runs back in each of their next two at-bats—Coleman’s home run off Alana Vawter tying the game. 

That’s where things stood long into the afternoon. Vawter and Oklahoma starter Nicole May had a lot to do with the lack of offense, but proceedings entered their epic phase when Stanford’s Canady and Oklahoma’s Bahl entered in relief in the middle innings. In a sport that increasingly asks pitchers to work in smaller and smaller windows, pitching fewer innings and for shorter stints, Bahl and Canady have the unique combination of breathtaking skill and mesmerizing charisma that allows them to recapture some of the aura of aces of days gone by. Every time they’re in the circle, they are the center of attention.

Twice in the closing innings, first in the bottom of the sixth inning and then again in the bottom of the eighth inning, Bahl pitched with runners on first and second and no outs. Twice she escaped, again never better than when the stakes are highest. In the first instance, she made a terrific play to get the first out at third base and ended the inning with a strikeout. In the second instance, back-to-back strikeouts ended the threat and handed the baton back to her lineup.

“I think she’s been delivering since she was delivered from the womb,” Patty Gasso said. “She is just made tough as nails like that, just good, down-home, Midwestern kid that has a work ethic beyond anything I’ve seen. [She’s someone] that has a passion and fearlessness about her and just absolutely embraces the biggest moments you could ever imagine.”

Unfortuanely for those Sooners with bats, Canady was running the anchor leg for the Cardinal. We’ve seen a pitcher win WCWS Most Outstanding Player without reaching the championship round, although LSU’s Kristin Schmidt did it a year before the advent of the best-of-three title series. It won’t happen this time, but Canady leaves Oklahoma City with her status forever altered. We’ve seen pitchers beat Oklahoma in the past three seasons. We haven’t seen anyone dominate the Sooners.

Nothing demonstrated Canady’s dominance over an indomitable lineup better than her mastery of Jennings. The nation’s active home run leader, Jennings entered the WCWS with eight strikeouts in more than 200 plate appearances. By the end of the regulation seven innings Monday, she had four strikeouts in five plate appearances against Canady.  

So, when Grace Lyons doubled to lead off the ninth inning and subsequently moved to third base with two outs, Stanford coach Jessica Allister had to do it. Lefties hit nearly 200 points better than righties against Canady. And this particular righty looked flummoxed by everything Canady threw her way.

“I think we’d make the same decision again,” Allister said. “Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, and it didn’t end up the way that we wanted it to, but we liked the matchup. At this point, you can’t be careful. You’ve got to trust your gut and go with the best decision.”

Stanford walked Coleman and took its chances with Jennings. On an 0-2 curveball, in a game full of example of pitch calls on 0-2 and 1-2 counts that were bold bordering on foolhardy, the slugger drove the ball into the gap.

“I shortened up my swing,” Jennings said. “I knew I had two strikes, so I was going to battle. But I was going to keep swinging and just do whatever I can to help the team.”

One way or another, an Oklahoma streak was going to end in Monday’s game against Stanford. Either the Sooners were going to have to play an if-necessary semifinal game for the third WCWS in a row (needing two wins against James Madison in 2021 and dropping a game against UCLA in 2022) or they were going to win No. 51 in row this season to extend their NCAA Division I record.

Jennings made sure it was the latter. As you somehow knew she would. 

“Tiare had some tough times, but she’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen,” Gasso said. “So coaches, all coaches, pick their poison. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Tiare has this ability to get locked in like nobody I’ve ever seen as well. Her swing just looked kind of easy. It looked pretty free and easy and ran right into it at the right time.”

How it happened

Top of the first: In its WCWS opener against the Cardinal, Oklahoma didn’t score against NaJaree Canady. But it set a tone for the game by making Stanford’s freshman star throw 29 pitches. Against Tennessee, the Sooners left the bases loaded in the first but made Karlyn Pickens throw 28 pitches—turning the lineup over and setting up second-inning success. But Monday, Stanford’s Alana Vawter cruised through Jayda Coleman, Tiare Jennings and Haley Lee in just 12 pitches, a 49 mph knee-buckling changeup to Lee epitomizing the inning. 

Bottom of the first: Taylor Gindlesperger led off the inning with a two-strike single against May. It was a sign of things to come. May worked her way to two outs and had two strikes on Kylie Chung. But Stanford’s hero a day earlier made an early bid for the same role in the semifinal. Chung’s two-strike, two-out, two-run home run gave the Cardinal a 2-0 lead. 

It was Stanford’s 26th home run of the season and Oklahoma’s 22nd allowed. Stanford 2-0. 

Top of the second: The Sooners still weren’t having much luck with the changeup, but they did begin to see more pitches than in the opening frame. They loaded the bases with one out on Alyssa Brito’s walk, Kinzie Hansen’s single and Grace Lyons’ walk—Vawter had walked more than two in an entire game just twice all season. Alynah Torres came through an RBI sacrifice fly, Hansen smartly advancing to third on the throw home. But with the daunting top of the order looming, Vawter coaxed a foul pop from Rylie Boone to strand two runners. Stanford 2-1.

Top of the third: Coleman’s second at-bat against Vawter went slightly better for the Big 12 Player of the Year. Leading off the inning, Coleman lined an 0-1 pitch into the right-center bleachers. Vawter again kept her composure, navigating the gaunlet of Jenning, Lee and Alysa Brito to retire the side while throwing just three balls in the process. Tied 2-2. 

Top of the fourth: For a moment, it appeared the narrative was taking shape. After getting OU on the board with her sac fly earlier in the game, Alynah Torres worked the count to 3-0 against Vawter with one out and runners on first and second. Would the Oklahoma transfer who doesn’t get as much attention as her counterparts make the day her own? Not against Vawter, who induced a grounder to Sydney Steele at third base to start an inning-ending 5-3 double play. 

Top of the fifth: Vawter’s day ended after Boone’s leadoff single. She eventually got to second on a passed ball, but Canady retired Coleman, Jennings and Lee—the second time in the game that imposing trio were retired in order. 

Bottom of the fifth: May alloweed three hits to the first five batters she faced in the game—all with two strikes. But by the end of the fifth, she had retired the next 13 batters she faced. And she needed just 46 pitches to do it. 

Top of the sixth: It was time for the Canady show. After hitting Brito to lead off the inning, Canady proceeded to strike out Cydney Sanders, Kinzie Hansen and Grace Lyons in order—all three swinging through pitches, Sanders out in front of a changeup and Hansen and Lyons unable to hold back on rise balls that topped 71 mph. The battle with Hansen was particularly compelling drama. The umpire granted Hansen a late timeout just before Canady started her motion with two strikes, drawing Allister out of the dugout and eliciting a warning from plate umpire Dustin Douglass. Canady struck out the All-American on the next pitch.  

Bottom of the sixth: May’s streak finally ended on Gindlesperger’s leadoff single, and that, in turn, ended the pitcher’s day. Entering in relief, her third appearance in OU’s three games, Jordy Bahl gave up a single to Emily Young but then went to work. The All-American made a nice play to get the lead runner at third, got the second out on Chung’s soft liner to short and struck out Emily Schultz to end the inning and strand Stanford’s first two runners since the first inning. 

Top of the seventh: Torres again flirted with becoming the story, but had to settle for a leadoff double off the wall in left field. She missed a go-ahead home run by couple of feet, and those feet saved Stanford’s season. After Rylie Boone reached on a fortuitous sac bunt attempt gone awry, Canady again stared down the top of the Oklahoma order. She worked back from a 3-0 count to get Coleman on a fly ball, struck out Jennings for the fourth time in their two meetings this week and retired freshman pinch hitter Jocelyn Erickson on a full-count fly ball. 

Patty Gasso tried to mix things up, pinch hitting a lefty for Lee, but it was still the third time in the game that Stanford pitching retired the top of Oklahoma’s lineup in order. 

Bottom of the eighth: It’s remarkable enough that Gindlesperger had three hits against OU pitching. It’s downright amazing she had three leadoff hits in the game, opening the eighth with yet another. And for the second time in a row against Bahl, Stanford turned her leadoff hit into runners on first and second with no outs when Emily Young reached on a perfectly placed bunt. But again, Bahl worked out of trouble with typical poise. After Kaneshiro popped up a bunt attempt for the first out, Bahl struck out Chung and Schultz to end the threat. 

Top of the ninth: A Grace Lyons leadoff double off the wall flipped the script from the previous week and put Canady on the hot seat. She, too, appeared to be on the verge of escape. But with two outs and Lyons now on third, Stanford made the statistically sound decision to intentionally walk the lefty Coleman and pitch to righty Jennings. But with two strikes, Jennings lined a two-run double into the gap. Oklahoma 4-2.