E.A. Sports Today

Patient Vipers

Oxford’s Vipers suffer extra-inning loss at home, but Rogers’ performance, O’Neal’s power surge and WPF playoff hosting rights keep hopes alive

Cover photo: Vipers pitcher Ashley Rogers lets fly during the team’s 6-5 loss to the Texas Smoke in Friday’s first game of a three-game home series. She struck out eight batters in five innings and departed with a 4-2 lead. (Photo by Joe Medley)

By Joe Medley
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD — Ashley Rogers’ slow walk into the Smash It Sports Vipers’ pitching rotation took another leap forward Friday. Raina O’Neal sent another ball over the fence.

Add that the Oxford will play host to the Women’s Professional Fastpitch playoffs Aug. 9-14, and those base-running glitches that contributed to a 6-5 loss to the Texas Smoke in eight innings on Choccolocco Park’s signature field sting a little less.

The Vipers (7-21) have eyes on a bigger prize, and it’s all about building up for what they hope will cover six days in August.

“At the end of the day,” Vipers general manager Don DeDonatis said, “it (the postseason tournament) is in the right place, and the girls are going to put on a show.”

The WPF is a four team league, and the postseason is two rounds. The top seed will play No. 4 in a best-of-3 semifinal series, and the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds will play. The winners advance to the best-of-3 finals.

The Vipers, playing in their first season in Oxford, prevailed over Oklahoma City to win hosting rights. DeDonatis called the process “tough.” The Vipers seemed almost certain to win hosting rights before the midseason break. Oklahoma City challenged but couldn’t make the dates work, DeDonatis said.

The Vipers, meanwhile, remain a work in progress.

Rogers, the team’s top draft pick, came online during a recent road trip through the league’s other three locales. Working on an increasing pitch count after mending a stress fracture in her right forearm, the standout right-hander from Tennessee was pulled with a perfect game going through three innings at Oklahoma City on July 26.

On Friday, she settled down after the Smoke scored two first-inning runs. She struck out eight batters in five innings and departed with a 4-2 lead, after throwing 50 strikes in 74 pitches.

“I feel like I just got better as the innings went on,” she said. “That’s my goal is to just improve. I hate that we didn’t get the win, but I think we got better as a team today.”

Vipers coach Gerry Glasco called Rogers’ performance tremendous.

“She’s really regaining her form,” he said. “She’s going to be just right for the playoffs, it looks like.”

Meanwhile, O’Neal keeps adding to her power numbers. Her third home run of the season, a two-run shot, gave the Vipers a 3-2 lead and keyed their three-run fifth inning.

O’Neal also regained a 5-4 lead for the Vipers with her sacrifice fly in the sixth inning to give her a team-high 14 RBIs for the season. All three of her home runs this season have come since July 24.

“Sometimes, when you hit one, you start to feel it again,” the former University of Louisiana outfielder said. “That’s just it for me. I’ve been a rhythm, and it’s been working.”

The Vipers lost their leads Friday thanks to home runs from Baylee Klingler and Shelbi Sunseri. Klingler’s two-run shot in the sixth tied it 4-4, and Sunseri’s solo shot in the seventh tied the game 5-5.

Morgan Howe’s single behind a Klingler triple gave the Smoke a 6-5 lead in the eighth.

The Vipers left 11 runners on base to the Smoke’s three. Emblematic of the night, the Vipers failed to take advantage of Suzy Brookshire’s leadoff triple in the fourth.

Brookshire also singled to lead off the seventh but strayed too far from first base on Kelsey Bennett’s pop to center field, allowing the double play.

The would’ves and could’ves could have dominated postgame conversation, but the big pearl still looms for the Vipers. They will get to host the postseason.

What matters is playing their best ball by then, and Rogers’ progression stokes hope.

“She’s going to be ready for the playoffs,” Glasco said.

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