NCAA softball mercy rule, explained: Why Women's College World Series games can end early under run-ahead ruling

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2022 WCWS
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For the better part of three seasons, the college softball world has been at the mercy of Oklahoma.

The two-time defending national champion Sooners have played 182 games over the last two-plus seasons, with 105 of those contests — 57.6 percent — being called under the NCAA's run-ahead rule. It is perhaps the most devastating ruling in the sport, and one Oklahoma has exploited without mercy this season.

While the Sooners are hardly the only team to enact the mercy rule this year, they are the most likely candidates to force its usage at the 2023 Women's College World Series. 

In the event games are called early, here's everything you need to know about NCAA softball's mercy rule, as well as its usage and history in the Women's College World Series:

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College softball mercy rule, explained

If a team leads by eight or more runs after five or more innings, the home plate umpire may declare the run-ahead rule in favor of the leading team — otherwise known as the "mercy rule."

If the visiting team reaches the eight-run limit in the fifth inning or thereafter, the home team must be given a chance to score enough runs to avoid getting run-ruled. Otherwise, the umpire may call the game complete.

That said, an inning does not need to be played to its completion if the home team reaches the necessary lead while at bat. So a game could end in the middle of the fifth inning, with only four-and-a-half innings completed (assuming the home team has already reached the eight-run rule by that time).

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Does Women's College World Series have mercy rule?

Prior to the 2023 Women's College World Series, the run-ahead rule extended only through the double-elimination portion of the WCWS, meaning it could not be enacted in the best-of-three championship series. If the exception was to be revoked for the championship portion of the WCWS, it would have to be declared before the start of the tournament.

That said, The Oklahoma Daily — the student-run newspaper for the namesake university — reported on Wednesday, May 24 that the 2023 WCWS will allow the run-ahead rule.

"It is an update for this year that the rule is in effect for all games," Matt Holmes, the NCAA's assistant director of media coordination and statistics, told the OU Daily. "I can’t confirm if this is the first time ever, as I don’t have complete rule information to know if it may have been used at some point in the 40-year history of the tournament."

This year's ruling follows the 2022 Women's College World Series in which Oklahoma beat rival Texas in two games to win the championship. The Sooners beat the Longhorns 16-1 in Game 1 and took a 10-2 lead in Game 2 — eventually winning 10-5 — but did not have the mercy rule applied in either game because the NCAA decided before the tournament not to enact it for the championship series.

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Has a team ever been run-ruled in the WCWS finals?

While the mercy rule has been used several times in the Women's College World Series (18 times, including twice by Oklahoma in 2022), only one team has forced the rule's use in the WCWS finals.

The only team to run-rule an opponent in the Women's College World Series finals is Arizona. The Wildcats beat UCLA 10-2 in five innings to clinch the 1997 WCWS championship:

How many times has mercy rule been used in 2023 NCAA softball tournament?

The NCAA's mercy rule has been enacted 27 times through the super regional round of the 2023 Division I softball tournament: 20 times in five innings, and seven more in six innings.

The only teams to run-rule their opponents in the super regional round were Washington and Utah. The Huskies run-ruled Louisiana 8-0 in five innings in their series opener; the Utes run-ruled San Diego State 10-1 in five innings in Game 2.

Unsurprisingly, Oklahoma has the most of any team still remaining in the Women's College World Series: The Sooners have run-ruled their opponents 30 times this season, including each of their regional opponents.

Here's how many times each of the remaining WCWS teams have run-ruled their opponents in the 2023 NCAA Division I softball tournament:

  • Oklahoma: Three times
  • Tennessee: Two times
  • Washington: Two times
  • Florida State: One time
  • Oklahoma State: One time
  • Stanford: One time
  • Utah: One time
  • Alabama: N/A
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Zac Al-Khateeb is a content producer for The Sporting News.