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2020 Softball Preview: Pitching

Experienced staff looks to take the next step

Minnesota Gophers open NCAA softball super regional with a victory over LSU. Photo by Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via Getty Images

You can take two approaches when evaluating the 2019 pitching staff.

A pessimist would point to the team ERA dropping by almost a run from 1.57 in 2018 to 2.50 in 2019. Perhaps more concerning was the massive dip in strikeouts and walks. The unit 2018 ranked third in the SEC in strikeouts and was fifth best in walks allowed. The 2019 Tigers had the second fewest strikeouts among SEC teams and second most walks surrendered.

The optimist notes that despite these stats, the team still made its fourth consecutive appearance in a Super Regional. All the more impressive considering the team had just lost Carly Hoover and Allie Walljasper, and the most experienced starter, Maribeth Gorsuch, had never thrown 100 innings in a single-season, through two years with the Tigers.

What this all means is that the Tigers will head to the 2020 season with a significantly more experienced staff building off a solid 2019, given where the situation was at the start of the year.

After a bit of experience from the circle as a freshman, Shelbi Sunseri made a strong case as the staff ace as a sophomore in 2019. She led the Tigers in innings pitched at 137.2 innings and strikeouts with 86 while sporting an ERA of 2.34 and a 1.25 WHIP. While she was consistent most of the season, fatigue might have been an issue, allowing four or more runs in four of her final eight appearances. Keeping in mind, her innings pitched was more than ten times the amount of innings she threw as a freshman. Like the rest of the staff, Sunseri had issues with walks, surrendering 60 on the year. However, as an upperclassman and LSU’s most accomplished pitcher in 2019, Sunseri is poised to anchor the staff for 2020.

If there is a pitcher that could supplant Sunseri as the staff ace it would be Shelby Wickhersham. In her freshman year, she had a 2.29 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP, striking out 48 batters. She did not struggle as much with walks, only allowing 36 free passes, though opposing hitters hit .221 against her. Wickersham threw just 98 innings in her first year, but the lack of appearances isn’t necessarily a knock on performance since Beth Torina has been more conservative with her freshman hurlers. Although she might not develop into a dominant strikeout pitcher, Wickersham should be able to build off a strong debut campaign.

The veteran on the staff, Maribeth Gorsuch looks to end her Tiger career on a high note. She hit a several single-season career bests with 111.0 innings pitched, 61 strikeouts, and a .199 batting average against. Where Gorsuch really got in trouble was allowing walks, with 70 on the season. After finishing her freshman year with an ERA at five, Gorsuch has shown continual improvement since and is poised to have her best season be her final season at LSU.

A wildcard in the staff is Ali Kilponen, who was hit or miss last season. Literally. In 47 innings pitched she allowed 41 hits and struckout 44. Heading to 2020, her role is undefined. She has high strikeout potential thanks to a power arm, which none of the returning starters have showcased to this point. However, with three reliable starters, it will be difficult for Kilponen to get more time if she struggles to record outs.

The newcomers to the staff are freshmen Taylor Edwards and Victoria Abrams. Abrams posted an ERA of 1.09 in 2017 with 128 strikeouts. LSU’s website does not list any high school pitching statistics for Edwards, despite listing her only as a pitcher.

Overall, the big goal for this year is to up the strikeout totals. Torina has pointed out that with the infield being on the younger side, it will be up to LSU’s pitchers to be more proactive in shutting down the opposition. That means more strikeouts. It’s not out of the realm of possibility as most pitchers tend to increase their strikeout totals with more experience at the collegiate level. How much so remains to be seen.

Expect Sunseri and Wickersham to be the top two hurlers by the time conference play starts. It would not be that surprising to see Gorsuch have the fewest innings between the three starters.

It was a solid debut for a revamped pitching staff in 2019. Now, the group looks to take another step forward to becoming the backbone of the 2020 season.