Bat and Ball Sports Front and Center

You've got a top seed in Alabama that pulled down a national No. 4 seed, a cowhide-slapping bunch from Troy that is pumped full of the confidence exemplified by head coach Bobby Pierce, a sizzling Southern Miss team led by what coach Corky Palmer called his deepest pitching staff yet, and a Jacksonville State team that is chock full of in-state kids wanting to show Alabamians they can ball.

Something tells me there's going to be some rip-snorting games at the NCAA Regional in Tuscaloosa that begins Friday with Troy vs. Southern Miss.

Alabama is clearly the favorite, with what looks like the deepest pitching staff in town and homefield advantage. But everyone knows the Crimson Tide (41-19) is far from invincible. The 2002 NCAA Regional at Sewell-Thomas Stadium proved that, when Southeast Missouri State tripped the Tide in the opening round and Florida Atlantic polished it off in the championship round.

Bama coach Jim Wells, burned in 2002 by not starting ace Lance Cormier in the opening game, has not fallen into the trap of trying to get past Jacksonville State tonight with a second-line pitcher. He'll go with Wade LeBlanc, who has been spectacular in his last three starts after getting an extra day to rest heading into the Florida series.

As fine an ERA as the 10-0 LeBlanc sports (2.70), it's bettered by Gamecocks' right-hander Donovan Hand (9-4, 2.58), who will get the ball against the Crimson Tide.

Troy has all the earmarkings of a spoiler team that could bash its way well into this tournament, but you have to remember: the Trojans didn't just lose a series to Southern Miss, they were swept in Hattiesburg. The scores -- 5-1, 3-2 in 11 and 6-1 -- make it seem like Troy struggles to score runs. They did in that series, but on the whole, nothing could be farther from the truth. Pierce's pack has posted an NCAA-best 555 runs, an average of 9.4 runs per game that is tied with Jackson State for the best in the nation. The Trojans scored double figures 25 times this season. For comparison's sake, Southern Miss scored 10 or more runs 19 times, Jacksonville State did it 15 times and Alabama did on 10 occasions.

Palmer, recalling the sweltering, high-scoring Tuscaloosa Regional of 1999, thinks the hot weather -- after potential showers today -- will be conducive to more slugfests.

With Troy around, Alabama's game personnel might want to keep extra bulbs for the scoreboard handy.

I can't let last night's classic pass without some comments.

For starters, you have to feel rough for Patrick Murphy and his Alabama softball team. Just when they thought they had the perfect opening for a first-round win and a deep foray into the Women's College World Series, along comes a heady Northwestern team ready to go all slugfest of them.

If you didn't stay up until 11 last night watching the Wildcats' 6-5 win over the Tide, you missed a beauty. And I'm talking about all the wild plays and the dramatics, not the highly flawed ESPN production.

Softball is making great strides nationally, but the worldwide leader did it an injustice Thursday with an amateurish production that featured major technical difficulties, erroneous graphic information, mispronounced names (memo to the talking heads: It's Mandy BUR-ford, not Buford) and other assorted TV butchery.

From talking to Murphy earlier in the week, you get the feeling he thought Northwestern would be more vulnerable to his flamethrower Chrissy Owens. But he ran ace Stephanie VanBrakle out for the start, and the senior strikeout queen had control issues and could not keep the Wildcats from running a carousel on the bases.

Murphy smartly pulled VanBrakle after four innings, and seemed to have the winning formula with Owens on the hill and in the lead after the Tide scrapped for a run in the fifth and two more in the sixth.

The game-tying home run Owens allowed in the bottom of the seventh, with two outs and two strikes on Erin Dyer, came on what amounted to a half-swing and was the first allowed by Owens all season.

Here are a few other thoughts. What kind of bogus ruling was that on the go-ahead ``single'' by Alabama's Brittany Rogers in the sixth? The ball clearly hit her hand and the ground, then bounced up and hit Rogers while she was still in the box. So it's a hit by pitch. The home plate ump seemed to be signalling dead ball, as if Rogers was hit by the pitch, but somehow the play was ruled a single.

Also, what was that umpiring crew thinking, allowing Northwestern coach Kate Drohan to argue a double play call through the entire commercial break between innings and then burn even more time coming out of the break? A competent crew would have allowed Drohan 30 seconds or so of lip, then sent her back to the dugout. The first day's schedule was already way off track with rainouts and extra innings, and the Tennessee and UCLA players deserved to get on the field as soon as possible for the nightcap. Replays showed Drohan was wrong anyway, as the Tide's Jordan Praytor made a sweet sliding catch in left, then doubled a runner off first with a nice sweeping tag by Dani Woods.

Alabama's defense was again faulty after its meltdown in the super regional-clinching win over Stanford. Staci Ramsey had a first-inning error, and also blew a chance to nail a runner at third on a sacrifice bunt in extra innings. Kelley Montalvo had a tough-hop error at second base, and Rogers let a single get under her glove in the 11th as the winning run scored. A nice scoop and a good throw could have nailed NSU runner Darcy Sengewald at the plate.

Murphy's post-game remarks: ``It's not over. It's been done. I think I read in the paper that maybe twice or three times (twice, if ESPN's research was accurate) a team has lost its first game and came back and won it all. So it's not like it's never been done before. That's the attitude we're going to take.''

The Tide's trek got harder when Tennessee upset No. 1 UCLA in the post-midnight finish. Alabama will face the mighty Bruins at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

Murphy is faced with a difficult choice too: the suddenly hittable VanBrakle or Owens?

Ed. Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register. He writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


BamaMag Top Stories