The home run keeps creeping into prominence in the game of college softball.
Over the last decade, home run numbers have been on the incline, and the days of the Women's College World Series being decided by a string of 2-1 pitchers' duels are gone.
This week's WCWS, which begins at 11 a.m. Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, features some teams with pop — a list that begins with the top-seeded Oklahoma Sooners.
OU has more home runs this year than any team in the field of eight, led by sophomores Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley with 27 and 22 homers, respectively.
But has softball's era of the power hitter truly arrived, to the point that a team can come to OKC, blast a bunch of homers, and walk out with a national championship?
“I don't think you can do it with the home run. We've tried to do it a couple times with home runs, and it didn't work so well for us,” said Florida coach Tim Walton, whose team finished as runner-up in 2009 and 2011.
“Not all the games are gonna be 1-0 like they were anymore, but you have to pitch and play defense. Home runs come and go, especially on a stage like this.”
History agrees. Florida hit a record-tying 14 home runs in the 2011 tournament and went home as the runner-up after a pair of lopsided defeats at the hands of Arizona State in the championship series. ASU had nine homers in the tournament.
OU led the field in homers last year with seven, and while that might not sound like a lot, it's tied for fourth-most in a single WCWS.
But the pitcher is still the most important player on the field — as one coach joked, “that's why they draw a circle around her.”
“There are some really powerful teams here,” said Arizona State coach Clint Myers, whose team is just behind OU in power numbers. “But this is still a game where good pitching beats good hitting.”
UCLA's 2010 season, however, gives the long-ball hitters hope. The Bruins initially set the tournament record with 14 home runs. Of course, 2010 was arguably the weakest year ever for pitching in the WCWS.
UCLA had the best pitcher in the field, Megan Langenfeld, who posted a 2.55 earned-run average and just happened to lead the power charge with four home runs in the tournament.
OU coach Patty Gasso knows the WCWS is no time to be sitting around waiting for the long ball. That fact was driven home by the Sooners' Super Regional win over Texas A&M, the nation's leading home-run-hitting team.
“It still comes down to pitching,” Gasso said. “Pitching is the neutralizer. Texas A&M hit a few homers off us, but (pitcher Keilani Ricketts) was the neutralizer.”
Yet to suggest the Sooners are nothing more than a power-hitting team would be shortsighted, too.
Ricketts, the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, has a 31-1 record and 1.22 ERA in the circle. The Sooners also get on base as well as any team in the tournament with a .467 on-base percentage.
“There are a lot of pitchers at this tournament that can neutralize your power hitters,” Gasso said. “You've got to find ways to get on and get that timely hit. It may not be a home run. It may be station-to-station and sacrifice bunts.
“We talk about the little things like that. This time of year, those little things become big, big things, and you've got to do them well to win.”