Column: Under Postseason Stress, Oklahoma's Pitching Plan and Execution Were Flawless

Nicole May and Shannon Saile each delivered maybe their best pitching performance of the season, just in time for the Sooners' short trip to Oklahoma City.
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Oklahoma drew up the perfect pitching plan for this weekend’s sweep of Washington in the Norman Super Regional.

Nothing too complicated. No algorithms or advanced metrics. No zen required.

Patty Gasso and pitching coach Jen Rocha just believed in their two starters — and so did the team.

The result was two strong performances by freshman Nicole May and senior Shannon Saile, and the OU offense did the rest in 4-2 and 9-1 victories that sent the Sooners back to Oklahoma City for another shot at the College World Series and the program’s fifth national championship.

The book on OU had become clear: be patient at the plate but also aggressive, and if your pitcher is good enough, maybe you can outscore the Sooners. Georgia did it, and so did Oklahoma State. In the burning hot forge of postseason pitching, the question about Oklahoma was clear: is the Sooners’ pitching good enough to win a national championship?

It certainly seemed to be this weekend.

“Sometimes when you make someone real hungry — like, they want it so bad but they just can’t get it; you’re not getting it to them — they’re gonna go one way or the other,” Gasso said. “And both of those pitchers this weekend went the way we were hoping — and that is, ‘Don’t ever question me again; don’t think I can’t get this job done. Give me the ball and let me show you what I can do.’ And that’s exactly what they did. Our team fed off of it.”

And think about this: the pitcher who went into the season as the ace — senior Giselle Juarez — didn’t even step onto the field this weekend. May and Saile were that good as they each pitched complete games.

Now Juarez is completely rested and refocused as the softball world descends on Oklahoma City.

Nicole May vs. Washington

Nicole May vs. Washington

May has been Oklahoma’s best pitcher since she was roughed up late in a 7-6 loss at Georgia. Gasso said she and Rocha have been impressed with how May has evolved and grown all season, but particularly since April 20, when she came on in relief of Saile and the Bulldogs scratched across two runs in the seventh inning with a single, a walk and a single — all with two outs — then won it in the ninth with a walk and two singles.

“One of the biggest moments of (May’s) career was at Georgia,” Gasso said. “Although we didn’t win that game, she was under extreme pressure and learned a lot. You can learn a lot more and get a lot better when you learn from things you’re not doing well or the the mistakes you’re making. I think that was important for Nicole May, and I think she’s taken it and run with it.”

Gasso said May came to college “like a deer in the headlights” and said she was too often “outcome-oriented” early in the season.

“If someone hit her hard, she just did not like that and sometimes would not get over it,” Gasso said. “And I think she started to learn as a pitcher in college, you really have to have thick skin and you can’t be caught up in outcomes, but more trusting your stuff and the process of getting to that point.”

May’s longest outing of the season was just 5 1/3 innings (she reached five innings one other time), but in the postseason, against two of the most potent lineups in the country, May went 6 1/3 innings against Wichita State and seven innings against Washington.

In 11 appearances since coming home from Athens, May has pitched 30 innings, with 23 strikeouts and five walks (three of those in the game at Wichita State) and has allowed only eight earned runs (a 1.87 ERA).

Shannon Saile vs. Washington

Shannon Saile vs. Washington

Saile, a 2019 transfer from Florida International who emerged as the Sooners’ ace this season, had several rough outings in May. She gave up four runs (two earned) in the loss to Oklahoma State, gave up two more runs to the Cowgirls in just two-thirds of an inning in the next day’s victory, then leveled things a little by allowing just five earned runs over her next three outings, including OU’s postseason victory over the Shockers.

Saile’s issue was control. She had walked four batters or more on five occasions this season. Her six free passes against Texas were a season-high, but those were covered up by the offense and the defense in a 10-2 win. In her relief appearance at Georgia, she walked two in just two-thirds of an inning before May relieved her.

But against Washington, Saile had never been better.

She went toe-to-toe with Washington hitters by staying in the strike zone, defying them to hit her 70 mph fastball, which she located with precision on both sides of the plate.

The Huskies’ offensive skills before the Super Regional were apparent. They came to Norman with a .324 team batting average and a .406 on-base percentage, both 15th in the nation; their 182 walks this season ranked 16th. But Saile challenged them because she trusted her stuff and trusted her defense — and in both cases, her trust was rewarded.

After hitting a batter and yielding a single in the first inning and then getting out of that trouble, Saile took control. She worked a quick, 1-2-3 second inning, then gave up a run early in the third before finishing it with a full-count strikeout. In the fourth, Saile walked the leadoff hitter, but then rolled a double-play ball and ended the inning with another strikeout. Saile finished strong by starting the fifth inning with two groundouts before allowing a single. A deep fly ball to right field threatened to keep the game going under the run rule, but Nicole Mendes’ catch at the wall finished it and Saile and her teammates celebrated.

Saile’s performance against UW was certainly no surprise. She was coming off another strong outing last weekend against Wichita State — one of college softball’s best offensive teams; the Shockers were No. 2 in the nation in home runs behind OU — in which she issued zero walks and zero hit batters in 3 2/3 innings.

And in the big picture, Saile’s control problems have been less than intermittent. She’s issued only 16 walks all season in 85 2/3 innings. That’s dominant. But the free passes had seemed to sometimes come in bunches.

“We really want teams — if you’re gonna score off of us, you gotta earn it,” Gasso said. “We don’t want to allow free anything, and Shannon really did a great job with that.”

Moreover against Washington, Saile created some real momentum for her team when she ended the third and fourth innings with those emphatic strikeouts.

She got one batter swinging and one looking, then stomped her foot and pumped her fist both times. And both times her teammates responded with immediate offense: three runs in the fourth off a leadoff walk by Tiare Jennings, a two-run home run by Jocelyn Alo and a solo shot by Kinzie Hansen, and two runs in the fifth off a leadoff double by Mendes, another double by Lynnsie Elam and an RBI single by Alo.

“It bleeds into the rest of our team,” Gasso said Saturday. “(Saile) did a great job leading our team today.”

Oklahoma is going to face some more elite pitching and premier defense in the coming days at Hall of Fame Stadium. Swinging a big stick will certainly help, but big innings will be the exception in Oklahoma City, not the rule.

The Sooners are going to have to pitch like champions to win a championship.

That’s why the timing was so important for this weekend’s pitching performances by May and Saile. OU has the nation’s best offense. The Sooners have the nation’s best defense. But now they’ve shown they have the kind of pitching that can win a national championship.

“We’re going into the World Series feeling very confident,” Gasso said. “Pitching staff throwing really well, defense, I think — I don’t know, I just feel like every part of our team is really on.”