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Despite losses, softball clinches playoff berth

Decisive one-game playoff against Augsburg awaits St. Olaf in first round

After cruising to an impressive 10-game winning streak to resume play following harsh winter
conditions, St. Olaf softball has struggled to maintain its success during ensuing conference games. Following a sweep against Gustavus last Tuesday, the Oles suffered four consecutive setbacks in doubleheaders against St. Catherine and St. Benedict, dropping to fifth place within an intense MIAC. 

However, this will now only impact playoff seeding. Despite the recent slump, St. Olaf has clinched a postseason berth for the first time since 2013 thanks to an immediate formatting change that sends six teams to the playoffs. During previous seasons, only four were allowed to advance, a restriction that eliminated a resurgent fifth-place Ole squad in 2017. One year later, St. Olaf finds itself in a comparable position, this time with opportunity in place of disappointment.

Excitement has been understandably palpable, but this fortunate turn of events contains a caveat that introduces its own set of anxieties for the seeds three through six in the bracket. Despite expanding to six teams, an abridged schedule stemming from an abundance of game postponements means that the first round will conclude after a single elimination game. 

As it currently stands, the fifth-seeded Oles would visit Augsburg Thursday afternoon with the entire season hinging on a lone seven inning, winner-take-all bout. St. Olaf split the season series with Auggies during an April doubleheader, making the hypothetical contest even more of a randomized toss-up. However, this is subject to change – if the Oles manage to sweep their final regular season doubleheader against Bethel, they’ll find themselves playing host to Augsburg instead.

Despite the uncertain circumstances, the good news is that if any team is poised to emerge victorious in a one-game playoff, it’s the Oles. In fact, narrowing the series to one game may prove to work out in their favor against an Augsburg team that’s proven troublesome in the past. That’s because St. Olaf possesses a valuable asset that hardly any other MIAC teams can claim for themselves: a truly dominant ace in starting pitcher Julie Graf ’20.

Much has been said about Graf’s proficiency on the mound, but with a 1.80 ERA and a conference-leading 233 strikeouts, over 100 more than any other pitcher, the praise could hardly be considered hyperbole. The Oles’ additional depth on the mound this spring has provided the extra push needed to leapfrog into the playoffs, but there’s no mistaking that Graf is the dominant force that will be St. Olaf’s x-factor down the stretch after having surpassed 500 career strikeouts in under two seasons, well on pace to smash the school record. In a multi-game playoff series, opponents could potentially work around this obstacle to hit the Oles when others take the mound, but now the Auggies will be pressured to challenge arguably the conference’s best pitcher rather than compete in a war of attrition. 

If the infamously volatile, single-game Wild Card round in Major League Baseball has proven to hold any consistent truth, it’s that teams featuring an ace will come out on top nearly every time. It’s a glaring inherent problem with such a structure – teams with a top-heavy rotation are advantaged over others more reliant on depth – but one that favors the Oles in this context. 

Augsburg possesses a formidable offense that’s plated 214 runs thus far this season, third most in conference, which presents an unfavorable matchup for a St. Olaf squad that has only managed one run in four of its previous five contests. Furthermore, a hiccup performance by Graf against St. Kate’s (seven runs in four innings) could prove worrisome. However, provided Graf remains on top of her game the way she consistently has in every other performance thus far, the forecast is positive for the first round. 

Should the Oles advance, they’ll take on either St. Thomas or St. Benedict in round two. They have yet to defeat either team in 2018, but with such a shortened playoff schedule, anything is possible.