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ROAD STOPS IN OKC: Canion's 6-Year Journey Ends With 6-3 Loss in Series

June 2, 2014

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - Even if it didn't come with bouquets of roses, a raucous standing ovation or even a win, Whitney Canion got her curtain call Sunday afternoon at the Women's College World Series.

Beat up in her two previous starts at this year's World Series, Baylor's senior All-American pitcher finished her amazing six-year career by constantly working out of trouble and giving the 13th-seeded Lady Bears a chance against a powerful Florida lineup.

In true Canion fashion, she gutted out a 151-pitch outing for her 116th career complete game on a day when she obviously didn't have her best.

But Taylor Schwarz's three-run double in the fifth proved to be the difference as the fifth-seeded Gators (53-12) advanced to the WCWS championship series with a 6-3 victory over the Lady Bears before a crowd of 8,910 for Sunday's national semifinal at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

"I'm just very proud of how the girls played on both sides of the ball," said Baylor head coach Glenn Moore, whose team finished 49-16 with its second third-place finish in four years, "but I have to point out a kid that has given everything she's had to our program. She's endured a lot of joking, because she's on Social Security now, apparently.

"But she's spent her entire six years milking everything her body had to give her. She's had such a passion to play, with little reward other than the fact she loves to play the game, and we've benefitted from that. I'm very proud of the fact that we've been able to put a good offense bind her . . . and given her the support she needed. But we wouldn't be here without Whitney Canion."

This wasn't the 2009 Canion that blistered the catcher's mitt with 70-mph fastballs, or even the 2011 version that threw a couple extra-inning shutouts against Oklahoma State and Missouri to get Baylor to the semifinals for the first time in program history.

It was a seasoned, albeit tired, 2014 Canion that has learned how to pitch even when she's not at her best.

"I've been struggling a little bit getting my riseball where I wanted it," she said, "but I really used my other pitches a lot today. I used my screwball and changeup and relied on those, and I got a lot of foul balls and pop-ups and groundouts because of that."

Unlike Thursday's 11-0 run-rule dismantling by the Gators, who are in the championship finals for the third time in six years, this one stayed close to the very end.

Florida had base runners in every inning and kept threatening to put it away, but Canion used her best Houdini magic to wiggle out of one jam after another. She was inspired by Baylor's miracle comeback the night before, when the Lady Bears rallied from a 7-0 deficit to eliminate Kentucky, 8-7, in eight innings.

"I've been in a lot of jams, left a lot of runners on base," she said. "I feel like I get more amped up once they get on base. That's just kind of how I've been my whole career. . . . I'm gassed, but this team - knowing their fight this week - kept me pitching. I know I didn't have my best stuff, but after seeing last night's game, how could you not give it your all?"

The Gators looked like they would break through in the top of the second, when Bailey Castro led off with a walk and Briana Little followed with a double just out of the reach of left fielder Linsey Hays. But Castro was tagged out between third and home on a comebacker to the circle, followed by a pop-up to second and Katie Medina's grounder to short, as Canion somehow survived.

She wasn't as fortunate, though, in the next inning. Kirsti Meritt drew a one-out walk and scored the game's first run on a Stephanie Tofft two-out double to the left-center gap for the early 1-0 lead.

"We just had a lot of two-out nice hits and RBI," said Florida head coach Tim Walton. "The little things win games here in the College World Series, and I'm just proud of our kids for believing in us and believing in themselves and in their abilities and not trying to do too much."

After giving up a run in the fourth on a leadoff triple by Little and a perfectly executed suicide squeeze bunt by Aubree Munro, Canion got herself in trouble in the fifth with her own wildness. She loaded the bases with two outs by plunking back-to-back batters after a check-swing infield single by Tofft.

"Really, I just lost a little bit on my drop curve. My arm came out, and I was really just trying to get them to foul it off, where they were on the plate," Canion said. "I was just trying to work them in, and I hit a batter. I hit several, which isn't really like me. But I'd rather hit them than give up a home run or something. That's really all I was trying to do was jam them."

Schwarz made her pay with a bases-clearing gapper in right-center that stretched the lead to 5-0. A sliding Schwarz was gunned down on a perfect relay from center fielder Lindsey Cargill to second baseman Ari Hawkins to third baseman Sarah Smith.

Asked what she was looking for on the 1-0 delivery from Canion, Schwarz said, "Honestly, I was still looking for my batting glove on deck. So, when I got in the batter's box, I was just thinking, honestly, get my pitch; and she threw a pitch right there, and I jumped on it."

For the second straight game, the Lady Bears faced a 5-0 deficit. Only this time, they didn't wait till the sixth to respond.

Ending a string of nine straight outs recorded by Florida pitcher Hannah Rogers (29-8), Smith got things rolling with a one-out single to right. And then Jordan Strickland kept her hot bat going with a double to the left-field corner that plated a hustling pinch-runner Justine Young with her World Series-leading sixth RBI.

"After last night (the comeback win over Kentucky), I knew the whole game that we can accomplish anything. And we can," Strickland said. "Today, we just kept fighting. We had a lot of senior leadership in the huddles, just telling us to keep pushing, keep pushing. We had some nice swings on Hannah. It was nice to finally break through. We just tried to keep that rally going."

After a 10-pitch walk by Robin Landrith and a groundout by Cargill, junior Kaitlyn Thumann delivered a two-run bloop single down the right-field line that plated Strickland and Landrith and gave the Lady Bears some new life at 5-3.

"It just shows a lot about the fight of this team," Thumann said. "It really is incredible. . . . Hitting is contagious. And for this team, we're just really good at passing the bat. I knew I hadn't gotten a hit off of Hannah. I was just really determined when I got up to beat her, and it happened. We were just passing the bat."

Even when his team was down 5-0, Moore didn't think the game was over.

"There's a point in the game where you're thinking, 'Those runs aren't going to win it for them,''' he said. "Or either the other way, the runs we have aren't going to win it for us. I didn't think the five runs would have won it for them, at that point in time. Of course, it would have been. But I really thought we were about to make a run."

Another bout of wildness helped the Gators plate a run in the top of the sixth, when Canion hit Tofft with the bases loaded after back-to-back singles by Medina and Kelsey Stewart and a hit by pitch by Merritt.

"I was just looking for my pitch," said Tofft, who was 2-for-3 with two RBI. "I'm not looking to get hit. But if it's thrown at me, I'll take it. If we're in a position where you get hit and it can score a run, I'm not going to jump out of the way."

As she did in the third and fourth, Canion ended the sixth and kept the bases loaded when she struck out Justine McLean.

After seeing a string of 32 1/3 scoreless innings snapped in the fifth, Rogers sat down the last seven batters in order to pick up her third straight complete-game victory of the Series and send the Gators to an all-SEC final against second-seeded Alabama (53-11). The Tide advanced with a 2-0 shutout of top-seeded Oregon.

"They're hitting on all cylinders," Moore said of the Gators. "They have a 1.000 fielding percentage and a pitcher throwing like Hannah's throwing; they're going to be tough to beat. . . . They're playing with a lot of confidence and made us work for anything we got off of them today."

Despite losing Canion and three other seniors - first baseman Holly Holl, catcher Clare Hosack and pitcher/outfielder Liz Paul - Moore said he is more determined than ever to "win this dang thing."

"I'm happy with what we've done, but I'm not satisfied," he said. "You just want to win it; that's why you play it. The years you don't get here, I have trouble watching it on TV. I had some warriors this year, and I thought we had a shot at it. . . . I'm just blessed to be a part of this program and a great university. I look forward to what the future holds, because we have some great athletes coming down the line."

There was also a symbolic passing of the torch from Canion to sophomore pitcher Heather Stearns, who picked up a pair of wins over Florida State and Kentucky on Saturday. She finished the year with a 15-4 record and 2.06 ERA and has already recorded three postseason victories.

"Early in the year, Heather was dealing with an injury issue," Moore said. "(It was) nothing big, but just a nagging injury that kept her from being on top of her game. She still had a phenomenal ERA and record and threw pretty well, but not the Heather we saw a year ago. So, for her to come here on the biggest stage and pitch like that . . . I think it's going to motivate our kids in the off-season to think, 'Hey, we've got a shot at being back.'''

Here is a link to the boxscore from Sunday's Baylor-Florida softball game.

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