By Parmida Schahhosseini
It will be a battle between two powerhouse teams. The No. 17 Baylor Lady Bears have a tough task ahead of them as they begin a three-game series against the No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners from today through Sunday in Norman.
Winning against a ranked opponent is important because tough competition allows for useful experience that will help in the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma is 10-2 against ranked opponents, and Baylor is 2-4 this season against ranked opponents with both wins coming on the road against No. 2 Arizona State and No. 21 Hawaii. In their history, the Lady Bears are 1-8 against top-ranked teams with their lone win coming against Florida on Feb. 8, 2009.
It will be the first conference game for the Sooners (30-2) who are riding a three-game winning streak. Baylor (29-7, 3-2 Big 12) already finished a series against Iowa State and played a two-game series against No. 8 Texas.
It will be critical for senior center fielder Kathy Shelton to extend her on-base streak, which is currently at 18 games, for the Lady Bears to have a chance at winning.
Baylor will have to get its offense going early through power hits or drawing walks. The Sooners are No. 1 in the nation in ERA at .84. Oklahoma boasts two players ranking in the top 10 in ERA.
Senior Michelle Gascoigne is No. 1 in the nation with .62 ERA and senior Keilani Ricketts is No. 6 nationally with a 1.00 ERA. Ricketts is No. 2 in the nation in shutouts.
Oklahoma’s pitching and defense work together to outscore opponents by a wide margin. Baylor needs to capitalize on every opportunity to avoid stranding players on the base path.
Shelton and sophomore outfielder Kaitlyn Thumann will both need big games to avoid falling behind early. Taking the right pitches will be important in this matchup. Thumann is currently riding an eight-game hitting streak, and keeping it alive would help give Baylor momentum.
Thumann leads the team in batting average at .426 and hits with 49. She also has 20 RBIs and produced 32 runs and three home runs. Shelton, who recently broke Baylor’s record for career stolen bases, has a .390 batting average, generating 48 hits and 27 runs. She also has 15 RBIs.
Thumann and Shelton are known more for their ability to steal bases due to their speed. Thumann has stolen 23 bases on 26 attempts this season, while Shelton leads the team stealing 27 on 28 attempts.
“We have to start being more aggressive at the plate, but I am proud of this team’s effort,” head coach Glenn Moore said.
The freshmen have answered Moore’s calling with outfielder Linsey Hays and infielder Sarah Smith stepping up. Hays leads the team with 27 RBIs and four home runs. She also has 35 hits and has scored 22 runs this season.
Smith has a .407 batting average with 17 RBIs while producing 37 hits and 15 runs. The power hits from these players lifts Baylor because they are able to hit sacrifice fly balls to advance base runners when needed.
The freshmen have also contributed for 10 of the 18 home runs that Baylor has hit this season. The underclassmen have helped Baylor surpass last year’s home run total. Last year, Baylor only hit 14 home runs in the 56 games it played. The surge of home runs is due to the transition from a speed offense to a power offense.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Hays said. “[We are]trying to get better every weekend, every game.”
Baylor has also been effective inside the circle, ranking No. 7 nationally and No. 2 in the Big 12 with 1.45 ERA.
Baylor’s pitching staff has gotten additional help by freshman right-handed pitcher Heather Stearns (9-3) who ranks No. 16 nationally with a 1.24 ERA.
Stearns also ranks seventh in the nation in strikeouts per game at 9.8. She has struck out 103 batters, with her 100th strikeout coming against Iowa State on Saturday. The opportunity to close out games in pressure situations has been a strength for Stearns as well.
“Heather coming in a closing situation, it was nice to see her do that,” junior left-handed pitcher Whitney Canion said. “We all have to learn how to close a game and seeing her close a game like that was good.”
Canion (15-4) ranks 10th in the nation in strikeouts at 170, but has allowed 68 hits and 35 runs this season. Canion will have to hit the strike zone early and not allow walks because Oklahoma doesn’t strand players on base too often. Canion is also No. 10 in the nation in strikeouts per game at 10.
Oklahoma ranks fifth in home runs per game, hitting 51 home runs in 32 games. Oklahoma has power hitters, so if Baylor’s pitchers allow a walk, they must be aware of the power threat coming up to bat.
Sooner sophomore infielder Lauren Chamberlain leads the nation in home runs with 16 homers in 32 games with a .469 batting average. The Sooners also rank fourth in the nation in runs scored, generating 237 runs in 32 games for an average of 7.41 per game.
Chamberlain and Ricketts both rank in the top six in walks allowed. Chamberlain is currently second in the nation in on-base percentage at .639, while Ricketts ranks fifth at .600. Ricketts is No. 2 in the nation in shutouts
Baylor needs to capitalize on opportunities when runners are in scoring position to avoid stranding players.
Oklahoma doesn’t steal bases very often, however. This is an advantage for junior catcher Clare Hosack, who has only thrown out 41 percent of the runners who attempt to steal a base.
After the three-game series with the Sooners, the Lady Bears will continue their road trip and head to San Marcos to take on Texas State.
After one game against the Bobcats, the team will travel to Nacogdoches for a double-header against Stephen F. Austin. Baylor’s next conference series will be against the Oklahoma State Cowgirls on April 14 at Getterman Stadium.