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April 29, 2013

Gascoigne an integral part of OU pitching rotation

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Keilani Ricketts began to struggle late during Oklahoma's final game against No. 6 Texas.

She'd cruised through the first six innings with a lead that swelled to a 5-2 heading into the seventh inning, but the game was slipping from her. After seeing her for the first time this season just a day before, Texas' batters had found an effective way to combat Ricketts' power.

They crowded the plate. They sat back in the batter's box.

They waited for Ricketts to make mistakes.

After watching Ricketts give up a third run in the game, Sooner coach Patty Gasso convened a team meeting in the circle and decided to make the change. The winners of this game would supplant themselves atop of the Big 12 standings and effectively put itself in position to win the regular season title.

Gasso signaled for Michelle Gascoigne to come on in relief of the woman who was tapped to start the International Softball Federation championship game less than a year ago.

It'd be up to her to save the game.

Gasso handed Gascoigne the ball with complete confidence, and the senior accepted it with vigor. The Longhorns had beaten her less than 24 hours before.

Ricketts cheered for her teammate from behind the dugout fence at Red and Charline McCombs Field in Austin, Texas, as Gascoigne began to try to finish what Ricketts had started.

***

Prior to Oklahoma's series win last weekend, Gascoigne averaged 11.4 strikeout per seven innings. She averaged 9.4 strikeouts for every batter she walked, and she is the nation's leader in earned run average.

Gascoigne is putting together an All-American season and has become one of Oklahoma's most significant assets over the last two seasons.

"I think Michelle's best is still yet to come, whether it's postseason or in the pros," Gasso said. "I mean, she's got a great future ahead."

Ricketts is reigning USA Softball Player of the Year -- the first player in Sooner history to win the award -- and she's on pace to repeat that performance.

Still, Ricketts doesn't see Oklahoma starting the year with just three losses if Gascoigne doesn't have a chance to pitch, let alone help Oklahoma reach the finals of the 2012 Women's College World Series.

"It definitely takes off pressure knowing that Michelle is just as good if not better at being able to take the game that I'm struggling with," Ricketts said. "It's nice to just not have to rely on one arm because the team's able to feed off two pitchers."

The tandem gives opposing offenses two very different looks.

While they are both left-handed, Ricketts is a power pitcher with violent breaking stuff in her arsenal.

Gascoigne, who can throw hard, is more prone to use her pitches' movement to her advantage. She plays the batter's line of sight with her rise ball and can spin it just enough to knock hitters off balance.

Gasso has made an effort to give each woman innings this season, and she hasn't regretted the move. She's been able to call on each to close games in difficult situations.

She can count on Gascoigne's maturity now, an attribute that wasn't always apparent.

Out of high school, she was one of the most touted players in her area at Benicia High School in Benicia, Calif. She'd been named Solano County Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year as a senior while earning first team honors in the conference in every year of high school.

In her prep senior season, she accumulated a 0.34 ERA and hit .494. By the end of her prep career, she'd struck out more than 1,000 batters.

Then she arrived in Norman.

"I think when she first came here as a freshman she was the queen in her area, the big honcho," Gasso said. "Then she showed up here and got shelled."

She made 21 appearances as a freshman at OU and won seven games.

She showed signs of becoming the pitcher Gasso thought she could become when she recruited her. Over 65.1 innings in 2010, she struck out 76 batters and held them to a .201 batting average.

In her sophomore season, her first-year ERA of 1.92 swelled to 2.66, and she amassed a 9-3 record in 14 starts. Still, the signs were there. She threw four complete games and two shutouts in 2011.

Then, in her junior year, she came into full bloom.

While establishing a single season-best 16-1 record, she led the NCAA with a 9.3 strikeouts per seven innings and posted a 1.57 ERA. Batters hit .185 against her.

In her final season as a Sooner, Gascoigne has become that pitcher her coach believed she could be.

"I've really seen her grow up," Gasso said. "I've seen her become more confident. I've seen her become a good leader. I've seen her become poised. I've seen her turn into an adult."

She's come to relish her role for the team, and her feats haven't gone unnoticed.

Gascoigne was the seventh overall pick in the National Pro Fastpitch College Draft this season by the Chicago Bandits.

Pitching behind to the nation's best softball player doesn't bother her, and she's knows how important it is for Oklahoma to have her change of pace on during a weekend series.

"Just to have a separate look that we can go to, especially in Big 12," Gascoigne said. "Day 3, if you're starting the same person over again, they're going to have some kind of game plan. So as much we can limit that."

That's what she was asked to do on Day 3 against Texas.

***

Gascoigne needed to focus against the Longhorns.

This opportunity had eluded her in the past, and she seemed determined to make the most of it, This would be the last time she'd be guaranteed to face Texas in her career.

After coming on with two runners on base and one out, she proceeded to walk the No. 9 batter after a battle. It was the first drawn walk by a Longhorns all day, and it loaded the bases.

With the crowd on its feet and shouting "Texas Longhorns!" from the stands, Texas leadoff woman Taylor Hoagland walked to the plate.

Gascoigne quickly worked ahead to an 0-2 count but found herself facing her second straight full-count in as many batters. But Hoagland popped out to OU's Javen Henson for out No. 2.

Texas' Brejae Washington strode to the plate to the sound of cheers from a partisan Longhorn crowd. She represented the game's winning run.

Gascoigne worked ahead again, gaining an 0-2 count. This time, she didn't waste any time going after the batter.

She threw a rise ball that crept over top Washington's bat to get Washington swinging.




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