Ahead of No. 4 Tennessee’s matchup with No. 1 Oklahoma at the Women’s College World Series on Saturday, perhaps the biggest question was who would start for the Lady Vols.
This roster is blessed with not one but two ace-quality pitchers: Ashley Rogers (0.83 ERA) and Payton Gottshall (1.58 ERA). Both are experienced—Rogers is a graduate student and Gottshall a senior—and either seemed like a fair choice to start against the best team in the country. And whichever started, it seemed reasonable to believe the other would not be far behind, with the pair often working in tandem this year, with one coming in to relieve the other. Of Tennessee’s six games so far in postseason play, Rogers and Gottshall had combined to cover all but two innings. Against its biggest challenge yet—Oklahoma entered Saturday with a record win streak—it stood to reason its pitching strategy would be much the same.
But the Lady Vols had a surprise in store. They would start neither of their aces. Instead, the circle would belong to freshman Karlyn Pickens: The righthander throws hard, and she’s shown flashes of brilliance this season, but she’s not Rogers or Gottshall. The move was curious. And it didn’t work.
Pickens was lifted at the first sign of struggle: Her day was done after giving up a three-run home run in the second inning. But at 3–0, the game was still theoretically within reach, and it seemed like time for one of their star pitchers. Yet Pickens was not replaced by Rogers or Gottshall. Instead, it was Charli Orsini… who was later relieved by Nicola Simpson… who gave way to Ryleigh White. In other words? It seemed like Tennessee was trying to use everyone other than its best pitchers. (During an in-game interview, Lady Vols coach Karen Weekly confirmed that both Rogers and Gottshall were healthy and ready to go if needed; the pair were in uniform in the dugout throughout the game.) The result was somewhat unsurprising in that context: Oklahoma needed just five innings to romp to a 9–0 win. It was the first game this year where Tennessee was run-ruled. And if Oklahoma was surprised by the pitching switcheroo? The Sooners certainly didn’t show it.
“A lot of teams have a lot of different tactics to throw at us every single game. It was something we were surprised by, but excited for,” Oklahoma catcher Kinzie Hansen said. “We weren’t technically expecting it, but when it came and we found out who was starting, who was coming in and just the different strategies people try to throw at us, we were excited for those challenges.”
So: What, exactly, was Tennessee planning for here?
“Just scouting them, kind of watching a lot of the other games where people had been able to kind of hold the number in check as far as runs scored, I felt like Karlyn presented a pretty good option to start with,” Weekly said. “I didn’t plan on anyone going the full game or letting them see anybody too many times. I thought that was something else important in terms of just trying to keep them off balance.”
There’s one aspect in which that approach certainly makes sense. While the Sooners have the best offense in the sport—they lead in home runs, batting average and on-base percentage—their one (relative) weak spot is high velocity. And Pickens throws harder than anyone on this Tennessee roster. When she topped 75 mph, Oklahoma looked somewhat overpowered at the plate, if only very briefly. (Pickens recorded three strikeouts in 1.2 innings.) The Sooners were still able to feast on Pickens’s off-speed stuff and to force her into walking them. But her velocity stood out here nonetheless.
And there’s one more possible line of thinking here. What about planning ahead for a potential rematch?
The WCWS has a double-elimination format—Tennessee is still alive after this first loss. (It will next face No. 6 Oklahoma State at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday.) The bracket is structured so that any two teams could end up in the championship series. Which means that if the Sooners keep rolling, and if the Lady Vols win on both Sunday and Monday, they would meet again to play for the title. And if they do? Then Oklahoma will not have seen Tennessee’s best pitchers. Against a team this historically good—almost no one can beat them, it seems, but perhaps someone can surprise them—that might be the best plan of attack. If the Lady Vols believed they had a better chance of winning out in the elimination bracket than of beating the Sooners in a hypothetical championship series where they had already seen their best pitchers … that would explain keeping Rogers and Gottshall out of the circle on Saturday.
Of course, it’s easy to lay that out as a hypothetical strategy, and it’s much harder to actually make it work. The Lady Vols would have to win at least three more games to set up a potential championship rematch. Even if they do, there’s no guarantee their opponent would be the Sooners, either. (It may not seem particularly likely that Oklahoma loses twice in its next three games—but anything is possible.) Yet there’s still a lot to be said for this approach. When a team is as good as Oklahoma? Its opponents have to pull out all the stops. Even if it means taking their chances in their elimination bracket before a potential rematch.
“If we face them again in this tournament, we’ll talk about it when the time comes,” Tennessee outfielder Kiki Milloy said. “But we focus on [our next opponent] Oklahoma State.”
As for Oklahoma? The Sooners know that opponents will try anything possible to beat them or get inside in their head. And they don’t particularly care: They’ve shown they can handle it.
“Teams can do whatever they want,” Oklahoma second baseman Tiare Jennings said. “But at the end of the day, it’s going to be up to us.”