Freshman Kaitlyn Slack and the Longhorns open Big 12 play this weekend in Stillwater, Okla. against Oklahoma State. CREDIT: Stephen Spillman / for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

BEVO BEAT Softball

Diamond Dust: Big 12 preview

Posted March 23rd, 2017

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The Texas softball team returned from its California spring break trip with a 4-2 record, suffering losses to No. 10 UCLA and Cal State Fullerton, which also has a win against No. 14  Baylor. On Wednesday, the Longhorns (17-11) defeated McNeese State 4-0.

Texas will open conference play this weekend in Stillwater, Okla., against Oklahoma State (19-11). The Cowgirls were picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor.

Baylor has been a surprise this season, posting a league-best 26-5 record. The Bears are a legitimate threat to keep Oklahoma from winning its sixth straight Big 12 regular-season championship.

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Since losing to Cal State Fullerton on March 5, Baylor is 7-1 and lost the final game of a three-game series against Central Florida on Sunday in Orlando. It should be noted that in the first two games of the series, the Bears recorded a run-rule victory and a shutout.

Oklahoma (24-7) has been kind of an anomaly this year. The defending national champion lost two games to Cal Poly in Los Angeles last weekend and dropped a 4-3 decision to No. 5 Arizona on March 14. The Sooners are 7-3 in their past 10 games. I wouldn’t count out Oklahoma in its bid to repeat as the Big 12 champ, but Baylor is playing some of the best softball in the conference.

Here’s a look at the seven teams in the Big 12, including where I think they will finish in conference action:

  • No. 13 Baylor (26-5) — Coaches’ pick: third. Diamond Dust prediction: first. Key series: at Oklahoma (April 21-23); vs. Texas (May 5), at Texas (May 6-7). Note: The Bears are 18-2 in their past 20 games, including five wins over Top 25 opponents.
  • No. 14 Oklahoma (24-7) — Coaches’ pick: first. Diamond Dust prediction: second. Key series: at Texas (April 7-9); vs. Baylor (April 21-23). Note: The Sooners’ pitching staff has the second-lowest ERA (1.88) in the conference, behind only Baylor.
  • Texas (17-11) — Coaches’ pick: second. Diamond Dust prediction: third. Key series: vs. Oklahoma (April 7-9); at Baylor (May 5), vs. Baylor (May 6-7). Note: The Longhorns’ schedule is favorable, but Texas is 2-8 against ranked opponents.
  • Oklahoma State (19-11) — Coaches’ pick: fourth. Diamond Dust prediction: fourth. Key series: vs. Texas (March 24-26); vs. Kansas (March 31-April 2). Note: The Cowgirls have one of the best players in the conference in Vanessa Shippy (.393 BA, 6 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 17 RBIs).
  • Kansas (18-11) — Coaches’ pick: fifth Diamond Dust prediction: fifth. Key series: at Oklahoma State (March 31-April 2); at Texas (April 28-30). Note: The Jayhawks will need a series win over Texas or Oklahoma State to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Iowa State (15-16) — Coaches’ pick: seventh. Diamond Dust prediction: sixth. Key series: vs. Texas Tech (March 24-26). Note: Iowa State has a chance to get of the cellar for the first time since 2011. The Cyclones have road series against the three conference heavyweights.
  • Texas Tech (13-14) — Coaches’ pick: sixth. Diamond Dust prediction: seventh. Key series: at Iowa State (March 24-26); vs. Texas (April 13-15);  Note: Texas Tech is a young team and has a win over Cal State Fullerton on its rèsumè. That’s something.

Let’s play in some dirt.

BIG 12 POWER POLL: As we head into opening weekend of Big 12 play, Baylor retains the top spot for the third straight week and looks to be the team to beat in the conference race. Oklahoma, the defending Big 12 champion, stays at No. 2 while the Longhorns, Oklahoma State and Kansas are neck-and-neck in the middle of the pack.

RANKTEAMRECORDLAST WEEKTHIS WEEKNOTE
1Baylor26-51at Kansas (March 24-26); vs. Abilene Christian (March 29)With win over No. 18 Louisiana Lafayette on March 9, Baylor is 5-1 against ranked opponents.
2Oklahoma24-72at College Preview Tournament (Oklahoma City/Norman, Okla.); at North Texas (March 28) The sooners dropped a pair of games against Cal Poly at the Layola Marymount Tournament.
3Texas16-114at Oklahoma State (March 24-26); at UTSA (March 29)Longhorns lost to No. 10 UCLA on March 8, moving their record against ranked opponents to 2-8.
4Oklahoma State19-113vs. Texas (March 24-26); at Arkansas (March 29) The Cowgirls lost to Missouri State 7-3 at home in their last game on March 16.
5Kansas18-115vs. Baylor (March 24-29) The Jayhawks went 3-2 in the Rock Chalk Challenge, losing to Tulsa and No. 12 LSU.
6Iowa State15-167vs. Texas Tech (March 24-26) The Cyclones have won six of their last 10 games and was 4-1 at the Battle at the Beach in Fort Myers, Fla.
7Texas Tech13-146at Iowa State (March 24-26) The Red Raiders have lost four of their last five games.
Texas player Taylor Ellsworth, center, is off to a remarkable start. The early enrollee leads the team with a .485 batting average and a .727 slugging percentage. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Three up

  1. Longhorns ranked 21st in initial RPI rankings: The first release of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) had Texas ranked 21st among the 295 NCAA Division I programs.  Baylor (No. 5) and Oklahoma (No. 15) were the only Big 12 teams ranked higher than Texas.
  2. Fantastic freshman: Taylor Ellsworth is currently Texas’ leading hitter, but she has played in only 13 games, including six of the past 10. The freshman from Georgetown has a team-high batting average of .500 with eight runs scored, two doubles, two home runs and 11 RBI. She also has a team-best .735 slugging percentage. If she was eligible (Big 12 stats only count players who average two at-bats per game), she would lead the conference in both categories.
  3. Super spring break: For all intents and purposes, Texas’ 4-2 record during its spring break swing through California qualifies as a positive outcome as the Longhorns head into the Big 12 schedule. Both losses — to No. 10 UCLA and to Cal State Fullerton — were by a score of 3-2. Cal State Fullerton won on an error in the ninth inning while UCLA broke a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the sixth with a solo home run by Bubba Nickles.

Three down

  1. Not being able to close out opponents: Texas has lost four games by one run, but in only one of those losses did the Longhorns never lead — a 2-1 loss to Texas State on March 1. In Arizona’s 2-1 victory on March 4 and in the Horns’ two losses in California last week, the winning teams triumphed in their final at-bats.
  2. No dominant pitching: Texas has a long-standing history of dominant pitching, but that component is lacking this year. The Longhorns are fourth in the Big 12 with a collective 2.51 earned-run average, putting them behind Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas. Texas also ranks fourth in strikeouts with a team total of 142. Oklahoma has a league-best 219.
  3. Where’s the offense?  Before Texas’ game against McNeese State on Wednesday, the Longhorns ranked fifth in the Big 12 in team batting with a .297 collective average and in runs scored (149). The Longhorns are second-to-last in slugging percentage and home runs.  They also have the second-most strikeouts with 148.
Texas’ Jade Gortarez reaches out for a ball against Indiana’s on Saturday, February 17, 2017. Gortarez and the Longhorns open conference play this weekend. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

ON DECK: The Longhorns open Big 12 play this weekend at Oklahoma State with a three-game series. In Texas’ mid-week contest, the Longhorns will visit UT-San Antonio on Wednesday.

Texas’ upcoming schedule (All games will air on 105.3):

Friday — at Oklahoma State, 6:30 p.m.

Saturday — at Oklahoma State, 2.

Sunday — at Oklahoma State, 1.

March 29 — at UT-San Antonio, 6.

Texas State’s Randi Rupp delivers a pitch against Abilene Christian on Feb. 12, 2017. Rupp picked up her first Sun Belt honor of the year last week. Photo courtesy of Texas State athletics

AROUND THE HORN: Here’s a quick look at a few story lines involving the Big 12, state schools,  the Longhorns and their opponents:

  • Randi Rupp named Sun Belt pitcher of the week: Rupp, a junior at Texas State who’s coached by former Longhorn Cat Osterman, picked up her first Sun Belt honor this past weekend. She was 3-0 in the circle with a 0.00 earned-run average, 26 strikeouts and a .136 opponent batting average. The Bobcats (21-4, 5-0) swept conference rival Appalachian State at Bobcat Softball Stadium. Rupp also shut out Houston on March 15, giving up four hits while striking out seven. Rupp and the Bobcats will be host to Texas on April 5.
  • No. 7 Texas A&M sweeps No. 22 Ole Miss:  The Aggies (25-2) moved to 5-1 in the SEC with a sweep of No. 22 Ole Miss last weekend in Oxford, Miss. A&M’s most dominant performance came from sophomore pitcher Samantha Show (10-1), who gave up two hits while striking out nine in a complete-game shutout on Saturday. Show ranks sixth in the SEC with a 0.79 ERA.
  • Former Westlake standout leads DIII in wins: UT-Dallas senior Lauren McLeod (12-1) is tied for the national lead for victories among NCAA Division III pitchers. McLeod, a 2013 graduate of Westlake High School, picked up her 12th victory in a 3-2 triumph over No. 5 East Texas Baptist on March 18. McLeod’s Comets are 20-5 overall and 12-3 in the American Southwest Conference.
  • Liberty Hill graduate Lynsey Mitchell sets Angelina College record: Lynsey Mitchell broke an Angelina College record by piling up 11 RBI on Feb. 3 in a 22-4 rout of Jarvis College. Mitchell, a 2015 graduate of Liberty Hill High School, had three-home runs, including a grand slam, in the opening game of the double header. In the two games combined, she had five home runs and 17 RBI. She was featured recently in “Faces in the Crowd” in Sports Illustrated.
  • Big 12 weekly awards: Oklahoma’s Sydney Romero and Mariah Lopez took home Big 12 honors this week. Romero, a junior outfielder, had three home runs and 11 total hits for the Sooners to earn player of the week honors. Lopez, a freshman, was the pitcher of the week and recorded her first career no-hitter while also posting 15 strikeouts and a 1.56 ERA.

That’s all the dust for this week. As always, swing for the fences.

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