Saturday was Taylor Clark’s day, but it didn’t feel that way for the first game and a half.
It was Clark’s senior day, the day Alabama softball was honoring its transfer infielder from Virginia Tech in her final season. Clark estimates she had 18 family members and friends — many traveling over 800 miles from her native Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania — in Rhoads Stadium for the festivities. Before she took the box in the fourth inning against Penn State, all she had mustered in five plate appearances was two walks. They were not easily earned walks, either, coming in 10 and eight pitches.
Then came an outside pitch on a full count, she thinks it was a screwball. The same pitch that flummoxed her in her previous at-bat, swinging and missing twice in a strikeout. She knew she would see it again; this time, she sent over the center field wall.
Clark’s two-run shot completed Alabama’s emphatic comeback win over Penn State, turning a five-run deficit into a 14-6 win in six innings. UA (8-5) won its first game in five innings, beating Louisville 9-0.
“You never know with a senior day or the homecomings that we do, when we go on the road,” UA coach Patrick Murphy said. “Every single time, we tell them beforehand: whether they go 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, whatever, we’re still going to love them no matter what, so take us out of the equation. All the parents and friends that have come from Pennsylvania for Taylor, they’re still going to love you. Just have fun. It’s a fun time to celebrate playing softball. Don’t overdo it.”
Clark surprised herself with how well she flushed the meaning of the day from her head; the message from Murphy helped. Those emotions came running back after the home run.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” Clark said. “My first thought actually I guess was to look up at my dad (Randy), because he was calling my name and was putting his hand on the net and wanting to give me a high five. My dad’s always been that typical softball dad, so to be able to be play at this level and have him here to see me hit home runs, it just means the world to me.”
Clark’s home run was what busted the game open, after right fielder KB Sides tied the game with a RBI single and catcher Abby Doerr gave UA the lead with a two-run double.
Sides was dangerous in the cleanup role throughout the day, mashing a career high five RBI in the Louisville game. Third baseman Maddie Morgan, in the 5-hole behind Sides, was just as potent: she had six RBI in the Penn State game, the first time a UA player reached that mark since Peyton Grantham against Missouri on April 1, 2017. Morgan also had a two-run homer in the fifth that brought the Crimson Tide (8-5) within one run of the run rule.
Sides and Morgan were thrust into run-producing opportunities thanks to Bailey Hemphill’s reputation. After Hemphill broke the UA record for home runs and tied the SEC record last year, teams have not been keen on throwing to her, as evidenced by being walked in four of her first five plate appearances Saturday. Sides and Morgan proved things don’t get easier once Hemphill is on first base.
“You look at KB who’s 1-for-1 with a walk and a sac fly, she’s perfect basically,” Murphy said. “Maddie’s 3-for-3 with six RBIs. That’s who you’re facing after her. It’s like pick your poison.”
Sides added, “It lit a fire underneath myself to get it done. I know how it makes Bailey feel — it gets the bat taken out of her hand — and I want to do whatever I can to get a run across.”
Doerr’s two-run double against Penn State was not her only crucial play: against Louisville, she caught runner stealing at second base to complete an inning-ending double play in the first inning.
“Every time I want to say something, I have to say to myself, ‘She’s a senior in high school, basically, and she still hasn’t had a lot of practice,’” Murphy said. “Baby steps with her. She’s just going to keep getting better and better.”
Doerr’s throw was a good start for pitcher Lexi Kilfoyl (4-2), who ended with three hits and one walk allowed in five innings, striking out five. Through two starts this weekend, she’s allowed five hits, four walks and two runs in 10 innings.
Doerr’s home run was part of the offensive rally that saved Krystal Goodman (2-0) from a run of bad luck. She struck out the first batter she faced, but a wild pitch put her on base. A two-run double put Penn State (5-8) on the board, but a fluky three-run homer put UA in trouble: the ball was caught by UA left fielder Alexis Mack, but it was jarred away from her glove and over the fence as she ran into the wall.
UA scored three in the first and two in the second to tie the game before a Penn State home run reestablished that lead. The five-run fourth put the game in UA’s favor for good.
UA concludes the weekend with a 1:30 p.m. game against Louisville (5-8).
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson