The Texas A&M softball team should never want to leave home, not when it plays at $28.6 million Davis Diamond, arguably the best venue in college softball. But going on the road this weekend might not be a bad thing, even if the destination is Starkville, Mississippi. Actually, it might be the best possible destination for the Aggies.
A&M lost hard-fought Southeastern Conference series to Auburn and Ole Miss the past two weekends. Those teams left Davis Diamond feeling like a million bucks. Auburn (25-14, 5-10) started league play 1-8 but followed its effort against A&M by also taking two of three from 14th-ranked Kentucky to position itself to make the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss (29-15, 10-8) topped that. The Rebels were picked by the coaches to finish last in the 13-team SEC, but after getting the best of A&M to win its fourth series, Ole Miss is in fifth place.
A&M (29-13, 6-9) failed to take advantage of being at home and now needs to win some games to feel good about making the NCAA tournament.
“We just need to shake off these last couple of [series],” A&M catcher Haley Lee said. “They were kind of rough on us, but we [can’t dwell on it].”
Last-place Mississippi State (24-19, 0-12) might just be the elixir the Aggies need, but head coach Jo Evans said the Aggies are going to have to do more than just show up to win three games. The Bulldogs are ranked 41st in RPI — only three spots behind the Aggies— and their strength of schedule is one of the toughest in the country. They also are 16-4 at home.
“They’re scoring runs, and they’re losing so many games by one run,” Evans said. “You’re catching a team at home, and they’re looking to get well. It can be a little scary series for us.”
Evans corrected herself and said scary might not be the right word, but it is. Mississippi State is good enough to win two or even three games against A&M.
“They’re all going to be tough [in the SEC],” Evans said. “It’s not someone we’re overlooking and thinking it’s going to be easy. We know it’s not going to be easy, but we expect to go over there and win some ballgames.”
Mississippi State has lost five SEC games to ranked opponents by one run, including 1-0 to third-ranked Florida. Eighth-ranked Arkansas swept the Bulldogs, winning a pair of one-run games and the other by two runs. The Bulldogs’ two other one-run losses were to No. 18 Missouri.
“We need to pitch well and I think [we’ll] have some opportunities to score runs against Mississippi State,” Evans said. “We don’t want another Alabama deal.”
A&M got swept by the Crimson Tide in its last road series with the last two games ending in bloated 8-6 and 14-6 scores. The Aggies think they’ve improved their pitching since then with junior right-hander Makinzy Herzog (10-3, 1.75 ERA) coming off two solid efforts. A&M has allowed only eight earned runs in its last five SEC games.
Mississippi State, meanwhile, has struggled in the circle with a 5.67 ERA in SEC play, topped by only South Carolina (5.89), a team A&M swept. If A&M’s staff struggles, the games could turn into slugfests because Mississippi State has plenty of firepower led by Fa Leilua (.345, 14 HRs, 36 RBIs) and Mia Davidson (.303, 13 HRs, 28 RBIs). They are supported by Carter Spexarth (.336, 9 HRs, 34 RBIs) and Chloe Malau’ulu (.308, 2 HRs, 12 RBIs).
A&M did salvage the last game of the Ole Miss series with a 4-3 victory and beat up a struggling Houston team 9-1 on Tuesday, so optimism is high headed to the Magnolia state.
“It’s a chance for us to get on a little bit of a run,” Evans said.
It is, but that also was the case heading into the last two weekends. The Aggies are hoping things will be better in Mississippi.
All 13 SEC teams made the last two NCAA tournaments. For that to happen again, Mississippi State and South Carolina (23-18, 2-13) have plenty of work to do based on the past. In 2019 the Aggies made it with a 6-18 SEC record. In 2018, Missouri made it with a 6-17 record, while Mississippi State and Ole Miss were both 7-17.
Mississippi State and South Carolina meet next weekend, making the A&M games that much bigger for Mississippi State. If the Bulldogs could take two or more games from the Aggies and sweep South Carolina, that would give them a chance to make the NCAA tourney. Mississippi State still has to play Georgia. Its series with Tennessee scheduled for April 9-11 was postponed due to COVID-19 and hasn’t been rescheduled.
Bad teams tend to do bad things. Houston struggled in the circle in its 9-1 loss to A&M and had a few errors, but the worst gaffe came on the base paths.
Bethany Busch singled with one out in the sixth. Houston’s Aspen Howie grounded to A&M first baseman Shaylee Ackerman, who threw to second for the forceout, but a sliding Busch beat the throw. Give Busch an A for hustle but an F for softball IQ, because she thought she was out, so she got up and headed to the dugout. With teammates and coaches screaming, she realized she was safe about halfway to first base but was tagged out.