By Michael Casagrande | [email protected], AL.COM
The power returned to Alabama’s bats Saturday, now it is heading to Oklahoma City.
A few towering home runs and a better afternoon for ace pitcher Montana Fouts sent the Crimson Tide to the Women’s College World Series with a 8-5 win over Texas. It is Alabama’s first trip to the eight-team event since 2016 with an eye on matching the 2012 national title.
It came with a little drama after the Tide (57-8) appeared to blow things open in the third inning of the winner-take-all super regional final. Momentum was on Texas’ side after scoring seven straight runs in a 7-5 win Friday to force the elimination game.
“I said before the game, I’d rather have gritty than pretty any day,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. “Whatever you have to do, get it done.”
It was an error that really broke things open — at least for a little while — for the Tide. The hosts had just taken a 2-1 lead on a Maddie Morgan sac fly when Claire Jenkins hit a deep fly to center with two outs. What looked like a sure out bounced off the glove of centerfielder Reagan Hathaway.
After a walk to pinch hitter Caroline Hardy, KB Sides lifted a fly ball that cleared the centerfield wall.
“It was shoulder high and down the middle,” Sides said. “I just kept saying ‘What the heck just happened?’ because it was just one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced.”
The packed Rhoads Stadium was still buzzing two pitches later when Bailey Hemphill crushed a solo shot over the left field wall to make it 6-1 Tide. The homer was her 25th of the season to tie her with Kelly Kretschman for the single-season program record initially set in 1998.
The third-inning breakthrough was important considering Alabama left the bases loaded in each of the first two innings. It had opportunities with Texas using multiple pitchers since ace Miranda Elish was in the dugout a day after taking a throw to the face in a scary injury that sent her to the hospital.
The five-run third inning came mostly off Longhorn Shea O’Leary, the pitcher who shut down Alabama’s lineup Friday after Elish’s injury. Texas used three pitchers on a day coach Mike White promised would be a full-team effort.
The Tide added another in the fourth on a bloop to left from Morgan that scored Skylar Wallace. Nearly the same scenario produced the eighth run in the sixth. It was the sixth of Alabama’s eight runs scored with two outs.
“I was just trying to keep it simple,” Morgan said. “And put it in play.”
Meanwhile, Alabama’s star pitcher rounded back to form through four innings Saturday. After allowing the three-run homer that ignited the Texas comeback from down 4-0 Friday, she was in control until a hit by pitch, single and walk loaded the bases for Shannon Rhodes. The third baseman’s grand slam tempered the home crowd, cutting the lead from run-rule range to 7-5.
Murphy said he had a decision about keeping Fouts in the game to throw to Rhodes.
“But I didn’t think they were crushing her,” Murphy said. “I thought she’d come back and she settled down really, really well.”
With the heart of the Texas order up in the seventh, the Longhorns brought the tying run to the plate with two outs. MK Tedder of Hoover, Alabama flew out to right to end the game.
Fouts (19-5) finished the complete game with 150 pitches, allowed seven hits and five earned runs while striking out four.
Michael Casagrande is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group.