The No. 11 Arizona softball team came into game one of the first round of the Women's College World Series with a lot of momentum after a two-game sweep of Arkansas in the Super Regionals last week. It wasn’t the ideal start to the tournament that Arizona was looking for as they would meet their match in Alabama, losing 5-1 on Thursday, June 3 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, OK.
The story of the game was Alabama ace pitcher Montana Fouts. She entered Thursday’s game with a 25-3 record along with a 1.46 earned run average and an astonishing 330 strikeouts. Against one of the best lineups in the nation in Arizona, Fouts showed everyone why she is almost unhittable and is one of the best pitchers in college softball this season.
Fouts went on to deliver a masterpiece as she struck out 16 of the 22 batters she faced. During one stretch she struck out eight straight Arizona batters and even retired the side four times, while 12 of her strikeouts came via her rise ball. In front of a national audience, Fouts’ made her claim that her rise ball may be the most unhittable pitch in all of college softball. In the process, she made a prominent Arizona offense look very average as she only gave up two hits in seven innings pitched.
Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy touched on Fouts’ incredible outing and where it ranks among the great performances he’s seen during his coaching career.
“One of the best”, Murphy said. “I couldn’t believe it because I keep the stats in the dugout. What a performance, that’s a great hitting team [Arizona]. Nothing to take away from them, that is a hell of a hitting team and for a kid [Fouts] to do that against an Arizona team that’s legit.... that was pretty special to watch.”
A game of this brevity means that there’s a high likelihood that there will be alumni from both teams in attendance. One of those alumni was Jenny Finch who won a national title with Arizona back in 2001 and is considered one of the greatest pitchers in program history. Interesting enough, Finch also happens to be one of the role models of Montana Fouts. Fouts touched on what it was like to pitch in front of the woman that she has looked up to all her life on the biggest stage.
“I think that’s pretty cool,” Fouts said. “She is one of my role models and I have looked up to her my entire life and I’m still [as] big of a fan now as I was then. I think that is pretty cool that our team won and we did well on both sides of the ball.”
Alabama would strike first thanks to an error by Janelle Meono that allowed Bailey Hemphill to score all the way from second base. Arizona had been responsible for only seven fielding errors throughout the entire regular season. Meono’s error would make eleven errors already in just six games for the Wildcats in this year’s NCAA tournament. However, Meono would quickly find redemption on the ensuing play as she made a great catch in deep left field to prevent another run from scoring. The Crimson Tide would strike again in the third inning via a homerun by Hemphill to deep left field. Making it a 2-0 advantage early on.
The Wildcats’ bats could barely get any contact on the ball to help their efforts as their first hit in the game came in the top of the fourth inning as Meono delivered a leadoff single to get things going for Arizona. On the ensuing play, Reyna Carranco would reach base safely after a fielding error committed by the Crimson Tide. However, just when the Wildcats caught a huge break and momentum, Carranco would be called out by the second base umpire after stepping outside the batter’s box before putting the ball in play. The late call ended up being the turning point in the game as it was a huge damper on Arizona’s comeback hopes. Their bad luck continued on the next play as Jessie Harper would ground out into a double play to end the inning.
A 2-0 lead for Alabama was the worst-case scenario for Arizona. The Wildcats knew that they were going to have match pitch for pitch with Fouts if they were going to have any chance of winning this game. They couldn’t afford to give up more than one run knowing the great pitcher that they were pitted against. Hannah Bowen did everything she could to slow down Alabama’s prolific lineup. Nonetheless, her efforts weren’t enough as she gave up two pivotal runs on four hits, two walks and only three strikeouts in four innings pitched.
Hoping to slow down Alabama’s bats and give her team a chance to win the game at the end, Alyssa Denham came in relief for Bowen in the fifth inning. Denham did her part as she retired the side and held the Crimson Tide to a 2-0 lead. However, in the sixth inning, Alabama went on to put a three-spot on Denham which more than sealed the victory for the Tide considering how dominant Fouts was pitching.
Maddie Morgan kicked things off for Alabama in the sixth as she hit an RBI double to left center field to give her team an insurance run. The Crimson Tide wouldn’t stop there as Abby Doer would seal Arizona’s fate in this game with a two-run homerun to left center field and make it a 5-0 Alabama lead. The only positive in this game for Arizona came when, down to their last strike, Harper would end Fouts’ shutout bid as she sent a missile on a 2-2 count over the left center field wall.
This game will be a hard pill to swallow for Arizona knowing that they got outplayed by Alabama in every phase of the game. An outcome they won't be pleased with considering how they dismantled the SEC regular season champions in Arkansas in last week’s Super Regional and how Fouts made them look pedestrian in this game. Arizona head coach Mike Candrea reflected on his team’s performance and didn’t seem phase one bit with his team facing elimination on Saturday.
“We had a couple of mistakes but I think overall [we] competed and did a good job,” Candrea said. “I felt like going into the last inning with a 2-0 ballgame would be a little different. I thought Reyna’s [Carranco] call kind of changed some momentum in the game. We’re in the College World Series, this is what happens and we just need to reset and move forward. We’re going to continue to do what we normally do. We have a day-off tomorrow but we’re going to go out and practice, do some hitting and get prepared for Saturday.”
Arizona will look to stave off elimination and save their season as they play Florida State in an elimination game in the loser’s bracket on Saturday, June 5 at 11:30 a.m. MST.
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