Matchups make the tournament, and that is just as true for the diamond as it is the hardwood. The University of Alabama Softball team limped into post-season play three weeks ago in the middle of the pack of the SEC, and it was a deceptive middle of the pack as well, with the Tide not having many quality series wins to boast of.
But, if there were ever a man who forged a Faustian pact with the Softball Debbils, it had to be The Gut with respect to this team.
Alabama caught fire in the SEC Tournament. First, it smashed a woeful Mizzou, and then dinked and doinked its way past the high-powered Arkansas offense. In the semis, the bats came alive, even as the pitching evaporated. But it showed that a good team can play with a great one on any given Sunday: the Tide lost a heartbreaker to the eventual champion Vols, 7-6.
The question lingering was “had Alabama done enough to earn a regional bid?” Turns out, it did. And not only did UA earn a host site, it was gifted an overseeded 5th slot, and then by far the easiest regional field of any contender. While teams like UCLA were getting bounced by midmajor behemoth Liberty, Alabama was staggering around punch-drunk over East Popcorn State. Yet, somehow, ‘Bama fell its way into a regional title and then a Super host site.
...where fate would once again smile on Patrick Murphy.
Alabama drew the No. 12 Northwestern Wildcats, a lightly-regarded Big Ten program that had gone 3-6 against ranked teams, and had two wins over RPI Top 25 teams. In fact, Purple Vandy didn’t even play a team in the RPI Top 20 for the final 10 weeks of the season until they met Kentucky in regional play.
Like Alabama, the Evanston ‘Cats are a foe of limited offense and one ace, accustomed to scraping by ugly games under half-a-dozen total runs. Like Alabama, Northwestern reached the 40-win plateau riding its ace and hoping to plate some runs to back up their winningest pitcher in school history, Danielle Williams.
But Alabama has lived in these murky waters for a long, long time, and in a do-or-die deciding Game 3 of the Super Regional, the two winningest pitchers at two programs, with a combined 198 dubs in the circle, would eventually square off.
And we should have seen what was coming. A portrait of beauty, it was not. It will never be confused for a masterclass of dangerous bats and competent offense.
But what it will be remembered for (as the whole tourney will be), is Fouts limping into a tie game, after Torrance had pitched a very competent 3.1 innings, with just one run allowed (solo HR) on 3 hits. And, it will be remembered as yet another win for Montana, who pitched about as well as Jaala to close out the remaining 3.2 innings. Perhaps fittingly, the nation’s best strikeout pitcher only had 2 Ks on the night, but her final pitch of the Super was a swinging strike three to send the Wildcats home.
It was also a pitch that cements her into ‘Bama lore with her 100th win and, in her last appearance at Rhoads stadium, with a trip to the World Series on the line. This Willis Reed moment was so telegenic and marketable, that it almost seems scripted.
Northwestern had a very clear strategy in this deciding contest: don’t let Prange beat you. And they did not. She was walked three times. So, Alabama had to look elsewhere for runs. And the offensive hero of the game, such as it was, belonged to one of the two steady ‘Bama bats, Ally Shipman. Shipman slapped a single down the line with the bases juiced, and brought in two to break open a tie game and tilt it 3-1, Good Gals. Turns out, that hustle with the bases loaded was necessary too, as Northwestern would not go quietly, scoring a run to cut it to 3-2.
But Fouts was Fouts. A gimpier version for sure; one that didn’t have all of her stuff; but one that got key outs in key situations and around whom the Tide rallied.
So, now Alabama limps into the Women’s College World Series next week, both metaphorically and literally, to face an old conference foil — Tennessee. And the biggest winner here is ESPN. Not only do they get the most marketable player in the game, they get a meaningful game with a lot of institutional bad blood. They get the contrast of matchups: one of the nation’s best offenses against one of its best pitchers. And who knows what can happen in that sort of one-off.
Come what may, this season will be counted as a success, though it may not feel like it. And Alabama may be paying today’s bills with tomorrow’s paycheck. And, yes, Murphy will likely take nothing away from this one to suggest that some change needs to be made: Alabama made the WCWS his way.
But I think the most honest brokers among us have to concede this was a run enabled almost wholly by two things: one of the sport’s dominant personalities, and some damned generous lucky breaks.
You can’t hate on the girls though. They may have sleepwalked in their Regional appearance, but every AB in the Super was a war against a team that is every bit their mirror image; one that also wafted from a fever dream into a waking land far more tangible than had any reason to exist.
Well done, and congratulations.