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OU softball: Sooners employing new pitching strategy as sport changes

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Oklahoma's Mariah Lopez is one of three pitchers the Sooners use this season. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
Oklahoma's Mariah Lopez is one of three pitchers the Sooners use this season. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

NORMAN — Keilani Ricketts is just six years removed from being one of the most dominant pitchers college softball has ever seen, but even she paused when contemplating what her career might have looked like had it come a half-decade later.

“It’s hard to really compare,” Ricketts said. “The game’s changed so much.”

Scouting reports have expanded thanks to an analytical breakthrough in the sport. Video is more readily available, as are hitting spray charts, righty-lefty splits and pitcher and hitter tendencies. Ricketts said lineups are better equipped now.

To combat the offensive breakthrough, coach Patty Gasso has strayed from a strategy that’s won her multiple national championships at Oklahoma. Rather than relying on one ace like Ricketts and then Paige Parker after her, the Sooners are employing a committee approach in the pitching circle this season.

Ricketts is now a volunteer assistant at OU, where she was named USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, her junior year, Ricketts went 37-9 with a 1.08 ERA.

She pitched 292 innings that season, a stat which shows more than any other how the game has changed. Parker, four years later, pitched 252.1 innings in her sophomore season.

“It was uncomfortable for me to push her through that,” Gasso said of Parker. “I vowed that I would not ever do that to one person again, because it could really ruin their career. We don’t need to do that anymore.”

This season, no Sooner pitcher is on pace to throw more than 200 innings. It’s not for a lack of talent.

Giselle Juarez was an All-American last season at Arizona State. Mariah Lopez is a three-year veteran who leads the team with a 1.22 ERA. Florida International transfer Shannon Saile leads the country with 13 strikeouts per seven innings.

While their workloads haven’t been even, the collective split through 34 games shows more balance than in years past. Juarez leads the team with 79.1 innings pitched, followed by Lopez at 68.2 and Saile at 45.1.

Using an average of 34 games as a benchmark, Juarez’s 79.1 innings is the fewest for an OU frontline starter in the last five years. Parker had pitched 92.1 innings by this time last year and 98.2 the year before that. Ricketts’ workload through 34 games in 2012 had already swelled to 133.1 innings.

“You won’t win enough with one person trying to throw every game," Gasso said. "You’ll kill them.”

But lower innings counts aren’t solely tied to fatigue. Improved technology has expedited the evolution. Gasso said the influx of information has become “extreme” in the last three to four years. OU is one of many programs that pays for scouting reports. The automatic compilation of numbers saves hours of time in the film room.

It’s now too easy for opponents to prepare for a single pitcher.

“We’re the three-headed monster in a way,” Saile said. “We have different approaches and different things we bring to the plate.”

Juarez is the preferred option against lineups with multiple left-handers. Saile is called upon against teams that struggle with velocity. Lopez can devastate lineups with her riseball.

Oklahoma ranks second in the nation with a 1.25 team ERA and a 6.29 strikeout to walk ratio. The Sooners haven’t allowed more than three runs in a game since Feb. 22.

“Having a staff makes it easier on us,” Juarez said. “It’s healthy competition. When we get out there and find out another person’s starting we’re like, ‘Heck yeah. Let’s go.’ We have each others’ backs.”

Juarez looked surprised when asked about Ricketts nearing 300 innings pitched in a season.

“In her day, that worked,” Juarez said.

Though that day wasn’t so long ago.

*****************************************************************

Oklahoma vs. Baylor

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday; 7 p.m. Saturday; noon Sunday

Where: Marita Hynes Field, Norman

Joe Mussatto

Joe Mussatto joined The Oklahoman in August 2018 to cover OU football, men’s basketball and softball. He previously covered University of Kentucky football and basketball for SEC Country. Mussatto is from Oklahoma City and lives in Norman. Read more ›

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