Tide turns against Oklahoma
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A night that began with a U.S. Special Operations precision parachute team dropping from the sky above ASA Hall of Fame Stadium during pregame introductions to deliver flags to each of the competing teams ended with Alabama pulling the safety net out from under the Women's College World Series.
For the first time since 2007, there will be softball Wednesday in Oklahoma City with a winner-take-all third game after Alabama evened the title series with an 8-6 win against Oklahoma in Game 2.
There will be softball in part because Oklahoma couldn't undo the damage it inflicted on itself through six innings with a final mad dash to the finish line in the seventh inning. There will be softball because of what Alabama did to either cause, or at least benefit from, those miscues, following a plan and executing the mechanics of the game in the moments when it absolutely had to do so.
"I think everybody, 20 players, stuck to a plan that we decided to do this morning," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "Everybody was locked in and ready to go. Couldn't be more proud of a team."
But there will also be a game Wednesday night because, more than playing like there was no tomorrow, the Crimson Tide played like a team that wanted to enjoy today for as long as possible.
There is a reason this will be just the third time the championship series goes to a decisive game, and it's not just because the winning teams in the cases of two-game sweeps had pitchers like Alicia Hollowell, Katie Burkhart and Danielle Lawrie. It's also because after a long week of softball in the Oklahoma heat, it isn't easy to bounce back mentally from a loss Monday under the biggest spotlight the sport offers.
Which is why in addition to timely hits, a carefully considered plan at the plate and all those miscues from the Sooners, a noisy dugout helps explain why there will be softball for one more night.
Tuesday's game appeared to start in distinctly familiar fashion for Alabama, albeit from the role of visiting team after being the home team in the first game. Oklahoma pitcher Keilani Ricketts struck out Kayla Braud and Jennifer Fenton to begin the game, just as she had against Alabama's potent all-lefty top of the order in their first trip to the plate in Monday's game.
For Alabama to have any success against Ricketts, it needed to prevent her from neutralizing two of its best offensive assets. When Braud looked at a third strike that whistled in at 71 mph and Fenton couldn't hold up on a changeup that hit 56 mph on the radar gun, it looked from afar like the Crimson Tide had come up empty on answers.
But even before Ricketts hit Kaila Hunt with a pitch in the next at-bat, a sign of things to come on a night when Oklahoma's ace matched her previous postseason total by hitting five batters, something curious played out in the Alabama dugout. For lack of a better word, the players gathered there went a little nutty as Hunt approached the plate, bouncing around and yelling as if Braud and Fenton had lined back-to-back doubles into the gap rather than struck out. Even Fenton, taking off her batting gloves and stowing her helmet, couldn't contain a grin as the madness played out around her.
Alabama got more than it appeared out of those strikeouts, forcing Ricketts to throw 13 pitches against hitters crowding the plate more than the previous night, but that wasn't what sparked the noise.
"We have this thing in the dugout where when we start beating [rhythms], we absolutely go crazy if we get a dugout warning from the umpire," said Olivia Gibson, the source of much of Alabama's bench energy. "So we were just waiting on it. We finally got a dugout warning from the umpire, so that just lit a fire under us."
Call that insignificant if you will, but Alabama had to have not just a plan Tuesday night, but also belief. And the team's optimism was evident long before it broke through with four runs in the top of the second inning.
Instead of stewing over the previous night's defeat, the Crimson Tide bought in en masse to Murphy's plan, the complete details of which he declined to share. That done, they spent part of their day trying to throw a Frisbee across the cavernous void of the atrium in their hotel, bringing hotel maids and random guests in on the trick-shot antics.
Tight never entered the equation.
"Our team just enjoys each other," Gibson said. "No matter where we are, if we're on the field, if we're in a restaurant, if we're in the hotel, we're always having a good time together. It's just any little thing like that can just loosen us up and be like, 'You know what, remember this is just us playing together.'"
Instead of starting to doubt themselves after leaving the bases loaded in the top of the first and watching Oklahoma take a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the inning, the Crimson Tide came up with a four-run rally in the second that was capped by Jackie Traina's three-run double. Instead of letting the Sooners complete what would have been the most remarkable comeback of all time in the seventh, the first six batters of the inning producing five runs to cut the deficit to two, they got the final two outs and got out of the stadium with the win.
After winning the first game Monday night, Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso noted her team had earned a "safety net" in a series that pitted two of the nation's best pitchers against each other. Oklahoma played at times like a team that knew it had another day if it needed it. Alabama played like it was grateful to have this day.
Now both have just Wednesday to settle a championship, and it's suddenly Oklahoma looking to rebound and make history by becoming the first team to win Game 3 after losing Game 2.
In 2005, Michigan had to complete its preliminary play the Monday morning of the championship series because of weather delays and lost to a fresh UCLA team that night before the Wolverines rallied to win two in a row. Two years later, Arizona had to play two games Sunday to earn a place in the final series and had no answer for Tennessee and a more rested Monica Abbott on Monday. With additional time to rest the next two days, Wildcats ace Taryne Mowatt found just enough left in her arm to complete her miraculous marathon pitching run and lead her team to the title.
It remains to be seen if the seventh inning of Game 2 will be the mitigating circumstance in this case that allows Oklahoma to do something no team has done.
"We just kept really talking about Keilani getting her rest, getting her mind right," Gasso said of the late rally that came after she pulled Ricketts in the fourth inning. "And using this opportunity not just to send a message, but to give us an advantage. I felt walking away, although we didn't have the win, we did not deserve the win, we got the advantage going into tomorrow."
Traina threw 149 pitches, more than 20 of them coming in that final inning. And when the lights come on Wednesday night, Alabama will have to either hope its approach at the plate induces another wild night out of Ricketts and more miscues behind her, or it will have to get more than four hits. Just don't expect the Crimson Tide to come out afraid of falling.
"All 20 together, that's rare," Gibson said of the team's cohesion. "That's very rare for a team. Not having one person kind of walk away from the group. It's all 20 together. It's just picking each other up and having each other's backs, where if you're not going to do it, I'm going to do it for you."
When you're out of the plane and hurtling toward the ground, you can either worry that the parachute might not open or you can enjoy the ride.
Either way, the safety net is gone.