Patrick Murphy looked at his lineup card and saw hope.
The coach of the University of Alabama softball team looked at a pitcher who had already thrown 180 pitches and knew it had to happen immediately.
Alabama was coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning against Minnesota at Rhoads Stadium in a scoreless tie. His batters came through, loading the bases.
With two outs, catcher Reagan Dykes drew a walk to bring in the game’s only run in a 1-0 victory over No. 1-ranked Minnesota at the Tuscaloosa Regional.
No. 14 Alabama (44-16) advanced to Sunday’s championship round, with play scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Minnesota will play the winner of Saturday night’s weather-delayed elimination game between Albany and Louisiana Tech at 1:30.
Alabama is one win away from moving on to next weekend’s super regional round. If it loses today, an “if necessary” championship game will be played Monday at a time to be determined.
Minnesota (55-4) fell into an elimination game, and will have to beat the winner of a losers bracket contest between Albany and Louisiana Tech to play Alabama again. Play at the regional went into a long weather delay soon after the conclusion of the Alabama-Minnesota game.
UA prevailed in a pitchers’ duel. Alabama ace Alexis Osorio (22-7) didn’t allow a hit until extra innings, striking out 11 with five walks while giving up only two hits.
Minnesota’s Sara Groenewegen (30-3) was the hard-luck loser, giving up four hits with 10 strikeouts. But it was the one walk given up by Groenewegen – who came in with a 0.58 earned-run average and only 29 walks on the season – that mattered.
To make it matter, however, the Crimson Tide first had to load the bases.
Alabama had No. 9 hitter Demi Turner leading off the ninth. Making her first start since sustaining a fractured eye socket on April 1 when she was hit in the face by a ball, Turner already had one hit and had sparked the Crimson Tide with several highlight-reel defensive plays.
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Turner pounded the ball into the dirt in front of home plate and beat out an infield single.
That brought up the top off the order. Center fielder Elissa Brown tried to drop a bunt, but the ball popped up instead of driving down. That forced Turner to hesitate – if a Minnesota player caught it, she could be doubled up if caught off first base – resulting in her getting forced out at second.
With one out and Brown on first came the key hit. Senior outfielder Chandler Dare dropped a single over second base and the crowd of 1,517 came to its feet.
“Chandler, first-pitch swinging, got the knock and that was probably the biggest hit of that inning,” Murphy said.
Marisa Runyon was hit by a pitch to load the bases, but Groenewegen coaxed a pop-up for out two.
That brought up Dykes. She had struck out on the Minnesota ace’s changeup the previous time at bat. Her plan was to try to hit something on the ground, or at least not too high in the air, to right field.
The plan changed quickly.
“The first two pitches ended up being balls,” she said. “The second one, I laid off the changeup.
“It was a 2-0 count and Murph gave me take. It became 3-0. He was like, OK, take again. And then it was 3-1.”
Murphy ordered Dykes to take again at 3-1.
“I thought Groenewegen might be a little wild at that moment,” the coach said.
Home plate umpire Brad Newton called ball four on the inside pitch, bringing in the run.
Dykes had a better idea of the strike zone than most, having caught 180 pitches with three previous plate appearances.
“It was close,” she said, “but I think just in the previous batters during the game it’s like 50-50 on if he was going to call it (a strike) or not.”
Said Minnesota coach Jessica Allister, “Until you watch the film, who knows. But throughout the course of the game it doesn’t come down to one pitch.”
For Alabama, it did.
“They did it,” Murphy said.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.