Alabama’s softball team earned the second seed in the NCAA Tournament on the back of an impressive 49-8 record, going 19-6 in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). It was a perfect 23-0 at home, including three easy victories last weekend in the NCAA Regional. All of that went out the window Thursday, when the 15th-seeded Stanford softball team stunned the Crimson Tide with a 5-2 victory in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“It was a great win,” said Stanford head coach John Rittman. “We told our team that we knew it was going to be a tough environment to play. They have great fans here and a very good Alabama team. We just needed to play the way we are capable of playing, and we did that tonight. We played relaxed and under control.”
The Cardinal (42-15, 10-11 Pac-10) took advantage of a trio of Alabama errors and got a huge pitching performance from sophomore Teagan Gerhart, who went the distance, allowing two runs on five hits while striking out eight.
Stanford got things going early, taking advantage of uncharacteristic wildness from Alabama ace Kelsi Dunne–the three-time All-American had walked just 63 batters in 204 innings this year but handed out free passes to senior first baseman Melisa Koutz and junior third baseman Jenna Becerra in the second inning. Both came around to score in the inning as the Cardinal jumped out on top, 3-0.
Junior outfielder Sarah Hassman did the bulk of the damage, lacing a single to right field that scored two. But perhaps the most important sequence happened in the bottom of the inning, after Stanford had taken the lead. Gerhart had to wait a long time in between innings and hit the first batter in the bottom of the second. The home crowd at Rhoads Stadium sensed an opportunity to get what has been a high-octane offense into gear.
But Gerhart stayed within herself. She got ahead of Alabama’s hitters and induced a simple ground ball and a fly out before snuffing the rally entirely with a ground out to Becerra.
“We had timely hitting, great defense and great pitching, which was key tonight,” Rittman said. “Teagan [Gerhart] was outstanding. She’s been hitting her spots and getting ahead of hitters, and as a pitcher that’s the name of the game. We got a great defense behind her, and when she does get behind, she’s not afraid to let her defense go to work.”
The younger sister of former Stanford football star Toby, Teagan Gerhart got some breathing room in the top of the third when Alabama made several mistakes in the field. Freshman designated player Danielle Miller reached on an error by Crimson Tide third baseman Courtney Conley, and then Koutz laid down a nice bunt that Conley couldn’t handle cleanly for a single.
A sacrifice bunt by junior outfielder Maya Burns put runners at second and third with just one out, bringing Becerra to the plate. The Camarillo, Calif. native lofted a fly ball to left field that Kayla Braud misplayed badly for her first error of the season. Both runs scored, and although Becerra was thrown out trying to advance to third base, the damage was done.
Working with her twin sister Kelsey behind the plate, Teagan Gerhart settled in and didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning, when Alabama senior Whitney Larsen hit her 13th home run of the season, a deep drive to left field.
Once again, it seemed like the Tide might be able to make a move, but Gerhart sent the next two batters down with ease and struck out the side in the fifth inning. She stranded two runners at second and third base with just one out again in the sixth, and she ran into a bit of trouble in the seventh when she gave up a run-scoring double that cut the lead to two.
Gerhart had reached the 100-pitch plateau by this point, but had no more trouble as she closed out her 29th complete game and moved to 26-11 on the season.
Junior shortstop Ashley Hansen added to her astronomically high batting average, which now stands at .505, with two more hits. And while the Cardinal struck out ten times as a team, it scratched out just enough to push Alabama to the brink in the best-of-three elimination series.
“Heading into the game, our focus was on not getting too anxious and treating this like any other game,” said sophomore second baseman Jenna Rich.
The team appeared to do just that on Thursday, but after the game harped on the importance of staying grounded.
“There’s still a lot of ball to be played and we need to come ready tomorrow expecting them to have a lot energy,” Rich said. “We can’t let down at any point.”
Despite a loss in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, the Crimson Tide was one of the favorites to make its seventh Women’s College World Series, but Stanford is in the driver’s seat needing to win just one of the next two games to advance to the eight-team World Series field for the first time since 2004.
Super Regional action continues today at 1:30 p.m. PST, when the Cardinal and Crimson Tide go back at it in Tuscaloosa.