Alabama's defense shines on Survival Saturday
OKLAHOMA CITY -- There isn't much of a margin for error in the Women's College World Series after a team's first loss. There's certainly no margin for multiple errors.
On a day when traditional powers Arizona and UCLA bowed out of the competition -- ensuring the WCS title will be decided without at least one of these teams for the first time since 1986 -- defense didn't win a championship, but it definitely helped determine survival.
No team benefited more from its gloves than the one that arrived in Oklahoma City with arguably the most fearsome offense in the nation.
Of course, in Alabama's defense, the Crimson Tide have churned out defensive gems all season.
Facing elimination twice in the span of 12 hours, Alabama beat defending champion Arizona 5-1 in the afternoon and Louisiana-Lafayette 3-1 in the evening. The wins, which brought the Crimson Tide's season total into a tie for the program's all-time mark (58), mean the Crimson Tide can advance to the championship series with two wins against Arizona State on Sunday (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET).
Alabama's vaunted offense showed up at times. Charlotte Morgan launched a ball deep over the left-field fence in the win against Arizona. Brittany Rogers, who slapped a key RBI single over shortstop against Arizona, produced the first run against Louisiana-Lafayette on a walk, a stolen base, a passed ball and a wild pitch. And in a tournament that has otherwise seen a dearth of runs -- even by World Series standards -- the Crimson Tide punched across eight runs in 14 innings on the day.
But those plays were only part of the equation. Alabama fielders committed just one error on the day, and it wasn't for a lack of opportunities. Kelsi Dunne and Charlotte Morgan pitched to their defense perfectly, but they did pitch to their defense. In pitching all 14 innings, the two combined for just eight strikeouts -- or about as many as Angela Tincher had before the clock struck noon here -- meaning the other 34 outs came on balls in play.
Alabama was stuck in the position of having to spend a busy Saturday at the ballpark at least in part because of a controversial play in the opening game against Arizona State. When an umpire ruled that Alabama third baseman and defensive stalwart Kelly Montalvo had touched a ball in fair territory while diving to try to stop a hard liner sailing toward third base, the Sun Devils pushed across two runs and held on for a 3-1 win.
Only 4-foot-11, Montalvo made the SEC all-defensive team this season and is widely considered one of the best hot-corner defenders in the country. It didn't take her long to live up to that reputation Saturday. With runners on first and second and nobody out in the bottom of the first against Arizona, she charged a ball off Jenae Leles' bat, then turned and fired to shortstop Kellie Eubanks covering at third to force lead runner Brittany Lastrapes. Thus, Dunne didn't have to deal with runners on second and third with one out, and she got out of the inning unscathed after a popup from Sam Banister and a fly to center from Stacie Chambers.
Putting aside Moltavo's 1.194 OPS for a moment, that's exactly the kind of leadership in the field that coach Pat Murphy told Montalvo he expected out of her after last season.
"I told her she was going to be like a Lisa Fernandez or a Michael Jordan or a Larry Bird, who when she plays her greatest, everyone else comes to her level instead of going down," Murphy said. "This year [Kellie] Eubanks had her best year, [Ashley] Holcombe had her best year, [Brittany] Rogers had her best year; Whitney Larsen has done great in the infield. And I think it has rubbed off, because it all started with her."
Throughout both games, there was plenty of evidence to support the notion of Moltavo's positive effect on her teammates.
With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the fifth and Arizona runners on first and second, Banister whistled a line drive toward left-center, only to see Eubanks time her leap perfectly to come down with the catch and double the lead runner off second base. That wasn't even Eubanks' best catch of the day: Against Louisiana-Lafayette, she made a full-length diving effort on the left-field foul line to snag a pop fly in the third inning.
"Defensively, it's been amazing," Murphy said. "The play earlier in the first game was awesome, the double play. Just with her arm and her range, she takes away a ton of hits."
Even Larsen, who was converted to an infielder after regular second baseman Lauren Parker was knocked out of the lineup by a shoulder injury (she's currently limited to hitting duties), has gotten in on the act. In the top of the fifth of the game against Louisiana-Lafayette, she adjusted to a ball that tipped off pitcher Morgan's glove, gloved it near second base, planted and threw to first base to beat the runner.
"Larsen turned like three or four double plays in regionals and super regionals that were tremendous and we didn't think would happen at all," Murphy said. "But just her steadiness at second base and lack of errors -- I mean, she really didn't play that in high school. She played a little bit in infield, but she was a centerfielder in summer ball and just really has stepped in. She's such a good athlete."
Such defensive prowess hasn't always been an equal partner with the program's high standards of offense and pitching. But the current edition is as good with the glove as it is in posting eye-popping numbers in the box scores. And on a day when an early error paved the way for UCLA's exit -- a day after the same Bruins put Arizona on the brink of elimination after an early error by the Wildcats -- and Louisiana-Lafayette watched three unearned runs cross the plate against them, defense mattered.
So there will be a tomorrow for Alabama.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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