Written By: Natalie Hansen

A Look at the FSU vs UCLA Extra Inning Showdown

The second weekend of Division I NCAA softball brought fans exciting games through increased TV coverage and sparked debate. Most notably, a lot of conversations have surrounded the use of the bunt in extra inning international play. In the bottom of the 8th inning of the FSU vs UCLA softball game, the Florida State coaches were faced with a tough decision. Do you bunt or let your players swing away? Let’s explore Sunday night’s game between Florida State and UCLA to see how the events unfolded and take a look at the game’s outcome.

ESPN Coverage

The popularity of collegiate softball has been increasing over the past decade and especially the past few years. The 2021 Division I Softball WCWS averaged 1.2 million viewers, a 10 percent increase on the 2019 WCWS. We’ve already seen how this popularity has translated to college softball for 2022.

This February 15th tweet by FSU Assistant Softball coach Travis Wilson showed just how stoked the college softball community was to receive a primetime ESPN slot for the FSU vs. UCLA game.

The coaching staff for UCLA was also thrilled about the opportunity to have the St. Pete Clearwater Invitational games be featured on ESPN. In an interview with the Daily Bruin, UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez noted that “(ESPN has done) a great job growing our sports, and it’s allowed for our sport to get into the living room.” This TV coverage has allowed fans access to more softball games and opportunities to witness these early season nail biters from the top teams in the sport.

This prime time feature between Florida State and UCLA did not disappoint! Two top-10 teams grinded until the final pitch of an extra-innings battle.

An 8-inning duel between the 6th ranked Seminoles and the No. 3 Bruins came down to the final play under the international rule. With Jahni Kerr on 2nd, Kalei Harding’s late-game line drive double scored the winning run, clinching a 4-3 win for Florida State. Let’s take a look at the game’s events and break down the Florida State coaching staff’s decision to swing away.

Game Recap

Top of 2nd

The Bruins took the lead in the top of the 2nd inning after an Anna Vines double scored Delaine Wisz. Lauryn Carter’s line drive to the right-center gap scored the second run, putting the Bruins up 2-0 going into the bottom of the inning.

Leveraging 643’s Win Probability graphic, we can see how Vines’ double tipped the model in favor of UCLA, who was at a slight disadvantage to start the game as the road team for this neutral-site contest. The PAC-12 also has roughly a 4.5% RPI advantage over the ACC, so this actually helped the Bruins throughout the game (at a decreasing rate) in our modelling of win probability. 

Bottom of 2nd

Florida State’s Michaela Edenfield was quick to answer back, blasting a no-doubt solo homer in the bottom of the 2nd inning, closing the gap to 2-1. This was already the redshirt-Freshman’s fourth homer of the Spring, as she now stands with a 1.773 OPS to lead the Seminoles. It’s safe to say the rest of college softball now knows who she is.

We can see how this solo homer factored into the win probability graphic, shifting the favor more toward FSU, but still favoring UCLA’s overall one-run lead

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Bottom of 4th

In the bottom of the 4th inning, Edenfield walked and Devyn Flaherty sent a double down the right field line to set up runners on second and third with no outs. Florida State took the lead after Bethaney Keen’s single to left scored Flaherty and Sydney Sherrill, who had reached on a fielder’s choice. This brought the score to 3-2 FSU.

Keen’s single after Edenfield’s walk and Flaherty’s double, swung the win probability in FSU’s favor.

Top of 5th

UCLA answered back in the top of the 5th inning when Kinsley Washington sent a ball deep, tying the game 3-3.

This home run drug the win probability closer to 50-50 with the tied score, giving FSU a slight advantage as the home team. With the win probability at 57.4% for Florida State, Washington’s homer brought UCLA back to where the game started with a tied score and the same win probability.

Bottom of 7th

FSU’s Bethaney Keen worked a five-pitch walk to put the Seminoles in business. With their 9-hitter up, Florida State decided to get Keen into scoring position with a successful sacrifice bunt. However, Kaley Mudge flew out and Kerr struck out to leave Keen stranded at second.

With both teams unable to produce a run in the 6th and 7th innings, the game headed into extras tied 3-3. In the Top of the 8th, the international rule came into play, placing a runner on second base at the beginning of the inning. UCLA went on to load the bases, but they went down scoreless after a fly out from Thessa Malau`ulu. This out for Florida State with Senior Kathryn Sandercock in the circle was the team’s second most impactful play of the season, behind only this game’s walk-off hit. The impact of Malau`ulu’s fly out in the top half of the 8th was 25% of win probability, a big swing for a huge out.

Bottom of 8th

In the bottom of the 8th with Jahni Kerr on placed on second base, the Florida State coaches opted to let Mack Leonard swing away, resulting in a fly out to left field. With Kalei Harding up to bat with one out, they again opted to swing away. This time, Harding ripped a hit to left center, scoring Kerr from second base and clinching the win 4-3.

The 643 Win Probability graphic shows how this final blow swung the model completely in the Seminoles favor to end the game. 

To Bunt or Not to Bunt?

To some, the conventional softball wisdom would have been for Leonard to sacrifice Kerr to third, trading an out to move 60 feet closer to victory. But late in the 8th, the Florida State coaching staff opted to forgo the bunt and let their hitters swing away, generating some buzz by the announcers and softball fans alike. Leonard finished the weekend with a .480/.536/.720 slash for the season with a .560 wOBA and already more than 10 runs created. Her hitting stats so far this season have exceeded FSU team metrics, the ACC, and Division I softball, as shown below.

However, her fly out to left in the bottom of the 8th was not enough to bring in the go-ahead run, nor was she able to move the runner. So was this the wrong decision? How did Florida Sate decide to not bunt?

FSU assistant coach Travis Wilson provided some insight on the Seminole coaching staff’s line of thinking in this situation. He also reached out to the lineup optimization and bunt/steal break even experts at SEQNZR to get their opinion.

Given that it was Mack Leonard at bat with Kalei Harding and Edenfield behind her, the data tells us that not bunting was the optimal decision for Florida State. In plain terms, the model tells us that she’s too good of a hitter to give herself up. Harding, a sophomore catcher/utility from Tennessee, finished the 2021 season with above average BA, OBP, SLG and BABIP while also having an .817 OPS over 226 PAs in her career at Florida State. She’s an accomplished hitter in her own right sandwiched between the red-hot bats of Leonard and Edenfield. Letting all three get a crack at winning the game with Kerr already in scoring position was the dominant strategy.

In fact, SEQNZR also tells us (in the chart above) that when Josie Muffley sacrificed pinch-runner Autumn Belviy into scoring position in the bottom of the seventh, she decreased the Seminole’s odds of scoring by 2 percent. While our win probability model says that Muffley actually slightly increased her team’s odds of scoring (and thus winning), note that the 643 model is player context-neutral, meaning it is not running the same simulations on the Florida State lineup specifically that SEQNZR is.

As it turned out, in the bottom of the 8th with one out, the FSU coaching staff let Harding, like Leonard, swing away. Ultimately, this resulted in the walk-off hit that clinched the game for FSU.

Florida State’s decision to swing away worked in their favor, and it goes to show one of the ways that statistics and data can help us understand the game better. Regardless of the decision to bunt or not to bunt, softball fans were able to tune into a marquee match-up on primetime television, and the game did not disappoint. College softball is here to stay and prove that it deserves all the limelight. This classic from Florida State and UCLA won’t be the last one in college softball this season.