April 22, 2013 9:39:07 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Mississippi State University softball team did all of the things necessary for another mammoth upset Sunday except win the game.
Battling back from a five-run deficit, MSU took defending national champion and No. 4 University of Alabama to the wire before falling 9-8 on a walk-off single by Danae Hays in the bottom of the seventh inning at Rhoads Stadium.
The Bulldogs were on the verge of their biggest conference series victory in years. MSU earned a 3-2 victory Friday night in the opening game of the weekend Southeastern Conference series. That victory snapped a 27-game, nine-season losing streak to Alabama. The Crimson Tide won 11-3 in five innings Saturday.
The series finale was as an entertaining, back-and-forth softball game as one could find.
"You just saw a lot of grit and determination out there," MSU senior outfielder Jessica Cooley said. "The last couple of weeks have been the most determined I have ever seen our dugout. It is a great feeling when you go into every game thinking you have a chance to win."
MSU is working to close the gap between thinking it can win a series and completing the process. The Bulldogs now have a victory against No. 3 University of Florida, No. 4
Alabama, and No. 11 LSU. In each of those series, the ability to garner a program-changing series victory slipped away in gut-wrenching fashion.
"You saw an incredible softball game," MSU second-year head coach Vann Stuedeman said. "The poise the Bulldogs played with was amazing. To be able to come back twice like that was amazing. It is all part of the process. We are going to grind every game, and I thought you saw a tremendous amount of determination on our part to win the game."
Alabama improved to 40-7 and 12-6 in league play. While the Crimson Tide remains one of the nation's elite, their ability to win a fourth straight conference championship will hinge on better defensive play. Alabama made three errors in the victory.
MSU fell to 29-16 and 7-11. In the last three weeks, the Bulldogs strengthened the NCAA résumé considerably by reeling off five straight league wins after a 2-9 start.
"I don't think anyone really got down on this team," MSU junior catcher Sam Lenahan said. "We knew what we were doing was good enough to win games in this conference. The season is a long grind, and you want to be playing your best toward the end of the season. I think we have gotten a lot better in a lot of areas."
The Bulldogs would have been hard-pressed to build such a rally earlier in the season.
MSU starting pitcher Stephanie Becker allowed six runs in the first two innings. Only three were earned thanks to two errors. While Becker dazzled in the victory Friday night, her early struggles helped Alabama take a 6-1 lead in the second.
Allison Owen (15-8) changed the contest for MSU. She had a stretch where she retired 11 of 12 batters.
MSU answered with a three-run fourth, thanks to a two-run single from Loryn Nichols and an RBI single by Lenahan. In the fifth, Jessica Cooley hit massive home run to left center. Heidi Shape singled and scored the tying run on a double by Julia Echols.
The Bulldogs had 10 hits off All-American Jackie Traina, one of the premier pitchers in the nation.
"We are getting good barrels and having good at-bats against a champion pitcher," Stuedeman said. "We are hitting a player who was in the circle last season helping her team win the national championship. It was an incredible offensive display on a day where we just kept battling."
Alabama reached Owen for a two-run home run by Haylie McCleney in the sixth.
The Bulldogs answered on Briana Bell's eighth home run of the season -- a line drive, two-run shot that hit right under the scoreboard. That blast tied the game at 8 with one out in the seventh.
"The entire lineup has some confidence," said Cooley, who was 6-for-10 with four home runs and nine RBIs in four games this week. "That is what we were trying to get earlier in the season. We had to get to the point where mentally every player on this team knows they can go in there and get hits."
Leslie Jury (15-3) relieved Traina and got three straight outs to set up the dramatics.
After a lead-off single by Molly Fichtner, Traina walked. A failed bunt attempt preceded a single by Courtney Collins, but center fielder Nichols threw out Fichtner at the plate. Hays then lined the first pitch she saw to left field for the game-winner, just inches away from the outstretched glove of left fielder Jessica Offutt.
Lenahan, Shape, and Bell each had multiple hits for MSU. McCleney and Andrea Hawkins each had multiple hits for Alabama, which had 10 hits.
"If you look at the tape, you will see a lot of victories today," Stuedeman said. "It may be taking a pitch in a certain situation. It may be moving a runner over. Within the game itself, there are a lot of areas where we won. We will celebrate each of those victories. The more wins we get inside the game will soon lead to more victories in the game itself."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter