Softball Sinks in Extra-Inning Killer

Stanford Softball fought mightily last weekend to come back and win their NCAA Regional in Fresno, and the Cardinal again clawed back Saturday from a cavernous hole in the Super Regional. It was a roller coaster affair in Tuscaloosa, ending Stanford's season in gut-wrenching fashion in extra innings. Your favorite Midwestern scribes made the trek and have the full details of a valiant comeback.

FROM THE CHEAP SEATS:
Extra-Inning Loss Ends Stanford Softball Season

by MizzouCard and MiniMizzouCard

Sports fans (and athletes) disagree about the "worst" kind of loss for their teams.  Some believe there is nothing worse than seeing their team blown out, because it is tough to see your team dominated.  Others say the worst loss is the "almost," when their team loses a close one at the end of the game, because of the sharp pain of hoping for a win, then seeing that hope go up in flames.

Both arguments have merit, of course.  But Stanford's softball team pretty much settled the debate Saturday.  It is not "the worst" too see your team blown out. But it is also not "the worst" to see them edged at the end of the game.  The worst is "all of the above."  In a strange, entertaining, and ultimately excruciating game, Stanford managed to get blown out and to lose by a nose at the wire.  The final result was a very painful end to the Stanford season in the NCAA Super Regional.

The blowout came first.  In an appearance that officially lasted only a third of an inning, Stanford starter Becky McCullough walked four batters and was touched up for five runs, all of them earned.  Reliever Missy Penna gave up two more runs in the top of the first (with Alabama as the visiting team on the scoreboard).

Remarkably, the start could have been worse.  With two outs and runners at the corners, Alabama's Jordan Praytor took off for second.  Stanford shortstop Lauren Lappin grabbed catcher Erin Howe's throw and tagged out Praytor for the long-awaited third out of the inning.  Or so it appeared.

Then the ball trickled into center field.  Yet another awful sight for Stanford players and fans who had endured almost half an hour of torture watching a first inning disaster.  As the umpire signaled "safe," speedy leadoff hitter Brittany Rogers executed the back half of the double steal by crossing the plate, and the scoreboard showed an amazing eighth Alabama run.

Lappin refused to go quietly into that good night, however.  She immediately protested the call, pointing out that Praytor had "gone Alex Rodriguez" on her by slapping the ball out of her glove.  As Lappin pushed her point hard, with some rather pointed gestures, the umpires conferred at some length.  [After the 1982 Big Game, I always get nervous about long conferences among officials.]  As the conference broke up, one umpire emerged and gave the "yer' outta here" sign.  Yours truly initially interpreted it as an ejection of Lappin, but it was actually an "out" sign for Praytor.  Lappin, as it turned out, had several adventures ahead of her (though, sadly, one less adventure than Stanford needed).

Thus, a wild half inning ended wildly.  It was over, but the Stanford players looked up at a "7" on the board before grabbing a bat.  Seven is a big number in any softball game, but it was particularly big here.  Alabama's starting pitcher, Stephanie VanBrakle, had held Stanford to a mere one run the previous night with a beguiling combination of pitches, including a drop ball she snuck under the Cardinal batters' hands repeatedly.

Thus, there was precious little hope among Stanford supporters in the blowout portion of the game.  The first Stanford at-bat was a battle between VanBrakle and senior centerfielder Catalina Morris that went to a full count.  As she had so many times the previous evening, VanBrakle won the lengthy battle when Morris swung and missed, then headed back to the Stanford dugout on the third base side of the field.

After two steps, though, Morris realized that the battle was not quite over, because Alabama catcher Ashley Holcombe missed the ball, which now rested at the bottom of the backstop.  Holcombe had the edge in this new battle, because she broke immediately for the backstop, while Morris was walking toward the dugout.  After a couple of steps, though, Morris realized she was not dead yet, and she headed for first with all deliberate speed.  Despite the extra long trip to first and the head start she granted to the 'Bama catcher, Morris just beat the throw on what was scored as a wild pitch.

The out averted on the play came in handy for the Cardinal.  Following a fly-out out by the previous night's hitting star, Jackie Rinehart, Lappin sent a hard ground ball in the direction of Crimson Tide third baseman Staci Ramsey.  Ramsey bobbled the ball, allowing the speedy Lappin to reach safely.  Freshman third baseman Maddy Coon sent a hard single up to center field.  Facing a massive deficit, Stanford coach John Rittman gave Morris the stop sign at third.  Alabama centerfielder Rogers, assuming a play at the plate, had already launched a strong throw to the plate.  A very strong throw.  So strong that it airmailed catcher Holcombe, sending her back to the backstop.  On the overthrow, Morris scored, Lappin moved up to third, and Coon to second.

Freshman Penna helped what had become her own cause by singling home Lappin, with Coon moving to third on the play.  After a Michelle Smith strikeout, catcher Erin Howe walked.  VanBrakle's second wild pitch of the inning gave Coon the opportunity to score.  Stanford second baseman Tricia Aggaboa's bid to continue the scoring, a hard line drive to left, instead ended the eventful inning when Alabama leftfielder Mandy Burford snagged it without having to move.

Thus, Stanford battled back from what seemed like an insurmountable lead to fight its way back into, or almost into, the game.  Giving credit where credit is due, Alabama helped with some uncharacteristically sloppy defense.  The Alabama lead was still a healthy four runs, but perhaps there would be a game after all.

Following the wild start, the next two innings were downright quiet, with neither team scoring.  After Penna wiggled out of a jam in the top of the fourth, Stanford still trailed by four.  The Stanford half of the inning started ominously, with VanBrakle quickly putting Smith into an 0-2 hole.  Working the inside half of the strike zone that had been so good to her all weekend, VanBrakle then hit Smith with her 0-2 offering.  VanBrakle's troubles mounted when she walked Howe, then gave up a single up the middle to Aggaboa.  That was the end of VanBrakle's day in the circle, though she continued to hit as the designated player.

Chrissy Owens, a hard throwing righty with a miniscule 0.66 ERA, took over in the circle and quickly managed to induce Stanford rightfielder Anna Beardman to ground the ball to third baseman Staci Ramsey.  Ramsey gloved the ball, then threw it over first baseman Dani Woods' head, allowing Howe to follow Smith home and cutting the Alabama lead to only two runs.  Aggaboa moved from first to third on the play, and Beardman moved up to second.

After Morris flied out to centerfielder Rogers, Rinehart hit an infield single that short-hopped shortstop Crimson Tide shortstop Dominique Accetturo.  Neither Aggaboa nor Beardman was able to advance, though, as they had to stay near their bags due to the possibility that Accetturo would catch the ball in the air.

Into the fray once again stepped Lappin.  Though Owens jammed her with a pitch under her hands, Lappin turned it into a hit over Accetturo for two RBIs.  Incredibly, the Stanford team that once looked at a scoreboard (incorrectly) showing them down 8-0 had managed to tie the game 7-7.  Owens recovered quickly, though, striking out both Coon and Penna to end the inning.

The hard throwing young pitchers took command of the game, holding their opponent's hitless and scoreless in the fifth and the top of the sixth.  Morris opened the Stanford half of the sixth with a double to the wall in left center.  She was stranded there, however, unable to advance on Rinehart's ground out to shortstop Accetturo.  Following a walk to Lappin, Owens again struck out Coon and then grabbed Penna's grounder up the middle and fired it to Woods for the final out of the inning.

Both teams went down in order in the seventh, sending the game into extra innings.  Holcombe grounded out to Coon to open the eighth.  Pesky #9 hitter Mandy Burford, the Alabama hero Friday night, then hit a sharp grounder to the sure-handed Lappin at shortstop.  The ball took a wicked hop, hitting Lappin in the chest and putting Burford on first.  Though scored as an error, and legitimately so, it should be noted that Lappin was in solid defensive position when the ball hopped wickedly off the hard Alabama Softball Complex infield.

Burford then stole second.  Penna struck out leadoff hitter Rogers, despite her lofty .438 average, with a nasty rise ball, but Burford took third base on a wild pitch.  Despite working a 1-2 count to the Tide's other .400 hitter, Penna was not able to retire Praytor, who plated Burford with a sharp line drive single to center.

Owens struck Beardman out looking to open the Stanford half of the eighth.  Morris, determined to somehow score the eighth run Stanford now desperately needed, singled to left.  Stanford's hottest hitter this weekend, Rinehart, strode to the plate and hit a sharp line drive.  Unfortunately, that line drive went right to third baseman Ramsey.  Even more unfortunately, Morris had left first with the pitch on an apparent hit-and-run play, so she had no chance to beat Ramsey's throw to first, which resulted in a double play that ended Stanford's season.

Line Score

Alabama  700 000 01  8 5 4
Stanford 300 400 00  7 7 1

Analysis

Excruciating is the best adjective I can come up with for this game.  Watching Stanford stake Alabama to a seven-run lead (that was even worse for a short time) was nothing short of painful.  Watching the Cardinal fail to take advantage of Morris's leadoff double in the sixth inning of a tie game was also mighty painful.

But this game was also a credit to the Cardinal.  Scoring in college softball is far tougher than scoring in college baseball.  In the NCAA tourney, with solid pitchers and good defenses, seven runs is close to insurmountable.  Yet Stanford climbed that mountain to tie up the game.

Thank You, Seniors

One has to feel for all of the Stanford seniors who ended their college softball careers in so painful a fashion, but special sympathy has to go to Lappin.  Anything other than the double play from Rinehart's sharp line drive would have brought her to the plate with a chance to negate the tough error she suffered in the top of the eighth.

The other Stanford seniors who have now played their last game in Stanford uniforms are Morris, Friday starting pitcher Laura Severson, Shoney Hixson, and Megan Bordelon.  Thanks for the memories, ladies.  May life bring you the best it has to offer.

Thank You to The Bootleg and KZSU

From the MizzouCard crew, we also send special thanks to Mike Eubanks and The Bootleg for posting these reports and to KZSU, particularly Sports Director Topher Anderson, for making the arrangements for the broadcasts of the Super Regional games.  Thanks also to Stanford Softball Sports Information Director Jeane Goff for cutting through the red tape to make arrangements for the broadcast.  Also, of course, we thank Coach John Rittman and his staff for making us feel welcome, particularly by inviting us to the team's post-game meal.  [Anyone who ever doubts whether Stanford players, coaches, and athletics department officials are worthy of all the support we can provide them should meet these folks. They will give you hope for Stanford and for the future of this country.]

Special thanks go to my partners this weekend.  First, it was an honor to broadcast with Marcy Crouch, a true Stanford legend who was the ace of the first few Stanford scholarship softball teams.  Marcy, you taught the MizzouCard crew a lot about the nuances of softball this weekend, and we appreciate it.  Finally, I thank super fan MiniMizzouCard for assisting with the broadcast and with these reports.  Nobody hurts more than Mini when that final out, or a clock reading 0:00, ends another Stanford season.  Few, if any, 12-year-olds can match his sports knowledge.  It is great to work with you, buddy.

MiniMizzouCard's Observations

- Down 7 early, due to lack of strikes
- At least we kept fighting, as we always do
- Owens is really tall
- Tough play for Lappin, not an error
- We scored the most runs (7) on Alabama the whole year
- Tough way to end the year
- Stanford players are always so nice to me
- Like the players said, we need to come to Palo Alto and see baseball and softball sometime
- Coach Rittman says I should keep my grades up so I might be able to go to Stanford some day


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