Softball Drops Opener at Alabama, 4-1

Name the 2005-06 SEC pitcher of the year. No, it was not Monica Abbott, the Tennessee lefty who shut down the Cardinal on The Farm in last year's Super Regional. Here is a hint: The Stanford hitters would have no problem answering this question after Friday night's knockdown loss at the NCAA Super Regional in Tuscaloosa.

FROM THE CHEAP SEATS:
Alabama Over Stanford 4-1 in First Game of Softball Super Regional

By MizzouCard and MiniMizzouCard

Alabama's Stephanie VanBrakle, now 28-5, proved worthy of her SEC Pitcher of the Year honor Friday night, scattering six hits and holding Stanford to only one run in a 4-1 Crimson Tide victory in the first game of the NCAA Super Regional.  She did it not by overpowering the Cardinal, but by relentlessly throwing the drop ball under the Stanford hitters' hands and outlasting several Stanford hitters who fouled off numerous pitches.  VanBrakle's crafty mixing of several other pitches with her wicked drop ball led to six strikeouts, most of them not from fastballs but from throwing it where the Cardinal hitters did not expect it.

Meanwhile, Stanford senior pitcher Laura Severson pitched a decent, but not spectacular, game in suffering her first loss of the year (10-1).  Few of the Crimson Tide's nine hits, all singles, were scorched, but the Bama hitters like their teammate in the circle managed to put the ball in places where Stanford players could not get to it.  Severson invited further trouble by walking four (though one of the walks was intentional).  She spent most of the game trying to pitch out of trouble, as the Crimson Tide put the leadoff hitter on first base in each inning other than the fifth.  [The two second inning runs were unearned, due to a leadoff error by Stanford second baseman Tricia Aggaboa.]

Severson battled gamely, and often masterfully, but those who play with fire too often eventually get burned.  She survived a bases-loaded situation in the first, but gave up a single run in the second and two in the third, with Alabama leftfielder Mandy Buford providing both RBI singles.  Batting in the ninth spot in the order, Burford laid this prognosticator's prediction that the top half of the SEC team's batting order would do the damage this weekend, as she not only drove in the first three runs for her team, but also scored the only other run after singling to open the sixth.

The bright spot in the Stanford offense was its own leftfielder, Jackie Rinehart, who singled in each of her three trips to the plate.  The other hits were a double by catcher Erin Howe in the fifth, a fifth inning single by third sacker Maddy Coon and an RBI single by designated player Missy Penna, plating Rinehart in the sixth.  Penna came the closest of any hitter to clearing the outfield wall at the Alabama Softball Complex when she hit a fly ball caught by Alabama centerfielder Brittany Rogers on the warning track near the deepest part of the park in the second frame.

Stanford's last realistic hope came in the sixth inning.  After Penna's RBI single, she stood on first base with Coon at second.  Stanford first baseman Michelle Smith fought off several two-strike pitches, but VanBrakle ultimately won the battle with a nasty changeup that froze Smith for a called third strike.

Analysis

Stanford faces a tough assignment in trying to get two in a row Saturday in front of what promises to be another large and raucous crowd.  Stanford fans looking for signs of encouragement will recall that the Cardinal faced the same deficit, plus the additional burden of having to survive an elimination bracket game, last weekend in Fresno.  However, last week the Cardinal faced an unseeded team, not one that bested the rest of the SEC in the regular season and secured a #5 national seed.  Alabama has decent and timely hitting, solid defense (no errors Friday), and a whale of a pitcher.  That is the basic recipe for a strong softball team.

For those looking for encouragement, I can offer the observation that Stanford's hitters did not seem to be as baffled by VanBrakle in the later innings (the one-two-three seventh inning excepted) as they were at the beginning of the game.  Like most pitchers who rely more on guile than pure muscle, VanBrakle might suffer a bit from familiarity.  That having been said, she still managed her way out of trouble almost unscathed, even in Stanford's best inning, the sixth.

There is a decent chance that VanBrakle will not pitch the next game against Stanford in the next game.  Now that Alabama has one in the bag, I look for them to pitch Chrissy Owens, who sports a wicked 0.66 ERA, in the next game, saving ace VanBrakle for the (possible) third game.  Of course, that would be a decidedly mixed blessing, at best, for the Cardinal.  In last week's Regional opener against Mississippi Valley State, only a dropped third strike kept Owens from notching a five-inning perfect game.

Line Score

Stanford 000 001 0 1 6 1
Alabama  012 001 X 4 9 0

Next Game

11:30 a.m. Pacific (1:30 p.m. Central) (elimination game for Stanford)

If needed, the third game will be played at approximately 2:00 p.m. Pacific (4:00 p.m. Central)

MiniMizzouCard's Observations

- They have a nice stadium.
- It's packed.
- That ump took forever to call a strike.
- Stephanie VanBrakle is a giant.
- Brittany Rogers is fast.
- The ball bounces like crazy, no wonder they hit .400.


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