Stanford's pitching putting nation on notice in Women's College World Series
If you didn't know, now you know.
Stanford's pitching has captured the nation's attention at the Women's College World Series after giving No. 1 Oklahoma all it could handle and then blanking No. 5 Alabama in an elimination game.
The Cardinal has surrendered just seven hits, two walks and one earned run in 13 innings on the sport's biggest stage. It can reach the semifinals with a win over Washington on Sunday.
"Blown away by the pitching we’ve seen from Stanford in Oklahoma City," tweeted The Athletic's Nicole Auerbach.
We would agree, but this has been the story all season.
Stanford leads the Pac-12 with a minuscule 1.61 ERA, the program's best mark in 15 years, and has fanned a league-best 432 batters. The Cardinal has posted 19 shutouts in 60 games and held its opponents to three runs or less in 19 of the last 20 contests.
Senior Alana Vawter and freshman NiJaree Canady complement each other nicely in the circle and they are backed by one of the nation's best defenses. Diving catches by Kaitlyn Lim and Taylor Gindlesperger and a jump throw by River Mahler were among the highlights in Friday's shutout of Alabama.
Canady recorded the final five outs after Vawter pitched 5-plus innings. Stanford used a similar strategy against Oklahoma, starting Canady and bringing Vawter out of the bullpen. Why not?
"I think AV's drop ball and changeup are as good as anyone's in the country, I think NiJa's rise ball is as good as anyone's in the country,” said head coach Jessica Allister. “When you have the opportunity to use both of those things, it's foolish not to."
Still, a reporter said pulling Vawter against Alabama was a "bold decision." She had only allowed one hit, after all.
"It was the plan all along," Allister replied. "You say 'bold' but it's what we've done all year."
It’s why Vawter gladly gave the ball to Stanford's freshman sensation.
"NiJa is the best pitcher I've ever seen," Vawter told ESPN after the win. "She's so freaking good. She's so fun to watch."
That's no hyperbole. Canady, the NFCA Freshman of the Year, leads the nation in ERA (0.51) and strikeouts per seven innings (11.5).
Her rise ball has topped at 75 MPH in Oklahoma City, generating whiff after whiff as batters fail to catch up to her speed and spin. She accents that heat with a mid-50s changeup and a wicked breaking ball to keep hitters off balance.
Canady made Oklahoma's esteemed lineup look lifeless in her WCWS debut, retiring 14 of the first 18 Sooners she faced. They managed to string a few singles together to score the game's lone runs in the fifth inning, but by then Canady had already made a lasting impression.
"She has become one of the hardest-throwing, ball-moving freshmen I've ever seen," said Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso.
Vawter, meanwhile, has been one of the top pitchers in the country for four seasons now, logging a 1.74 ERA in almost 700 career innings. Somehow this is the first year she was named an All-American. She teared up when she received the honor in a press conference on Wednesday.
She finally got the recognition she deserves.
"It means everything," Vawter said. “(Pitching) coach (Tori) Nyberg is one of my best friends on this planet and her and Coach Allister have absolutely believed in me from day one. Obviously as a staff we're super successful and we've been able to grow the program and end up in Oklahoma City where we thought we've needed to be for a while now."