- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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AMHERST, Mass. -- Hello darkness, my old friend.
A night after a festive atmosphere greeted the first home game under the lights at the UMass Softball Complex, the darkness looming beyond the outfield fence Saturday at the Amherst Regional hinted less at celebration than all-too-familiar nightmares waiting to gain a foothold.
Out there was the void of another postseason of unrealized potential, and for the four Massachusetts seniors in the starting lineup for an elimination game against Sacred Heart, the unknown of waking up to the first of many mornings as former college players.
Instead, Massachusetts embraced the night and advanced to play another day. Behind the third perfect game of Brandice Balschmiter's career, the Minutewomen needed just five innings to register an 8-0 run-rule win. They face Washington tomorrow, needing two wins against the tournament's third seed to prolong their season, but playing nonetheless.
Coming off a 3-1 loss to the Huskies earlier in the day in which she was the unfortunate owner of two key errors, senior Whitney Mollica had three hits, two RBIs, several good defensive plays and an all-out, head-first plunge toward third base to escape a rundown that seemed to represent the yin of frantic effort that accompanied the yang of Balschmiter's brilliance.
So in the roughly 2½ hours between the loss against Washington and the start of the game at Sacred Heart, was Mollica using the potential close of a career as fuel?
"Yeah, because I don't want it to end," Mollica said. "We're very determined as a senior class to get where we want to go, and that's to a national championship and [to] compete for a national championship. So I was just very pleased -- you know, we played a tough game today [against Washington]. It was tough all around, for myself, for the team. But I think we really brought it together with the [Sacred Heart] game."
As freshmen, Mollica, Balschmiter, Samantha Salato, Davina Hernandez and Carly Morin were part of a team that won a regional on its home field in Amherst and advanced to within a handful of outs of the Women's College World Series. The Minutewomen came out of the winners' bracket in that instance and needed just one win the final day to clinch the regional. Hosting the past two seasons, Massachusetts had to come through the losers' bracket and couldn't overcome the favorites -- Oklahoma in 2007 and Stanford in 2008.
So to make the return trip the seniors have been looking for since their freshman year, they'll have to do something they've never done: winning twice Sunday. But if the odds are long, at least Saturday's quick recovery, regardless of the opponent, was encouraging.
"I talk about it all the time, going back to that game down at Northwestern [in a 2006 super regional], that last game where everything kind of fell apart," Balschmiter said on the eve of this year's regional. "I wish I had the ability to focus more, slow myself down, take a step back off the mound and just relax and calm down and know that I'm good enough to do this and capable of getting through it. And now here I am, four years later, with the same opportunity ahead of me to get through this again."
After the loss earlier in the day, one in which she handcuffed the Huskies for long stretches only to be undone by miscues behind her, Balschmiter quickly noted how many times Mollica had saved her with brilliant plays over the course of four years. Superstitious, she didn't let a lost visor, the headgear that always accompanies her to the circle, distract her before pitching five innings of perfection against Sacred Heart in her second start of the day -- and the first she could remember without the visor.
She pitched, and the team played, with the experience of four years and the urgency of one night.
Darkness eventually overtook the grass and dirt in Amherst on Saturday night, but not before the Minutewomen had long since left the premises to get some rest. After all, morning will come before they know it.
Washington 3, Massachusetts 1
It wasn't quite a duel for the ages, but both Washington's Danielle Lawrie and Balschmiter did their parts in Saturday's opening game in Amherst. Lawrie struck out five hitters in the first two innings and 12 in all en route to a complete game three-hitter. But Balschmiter didn't make it easy for the Huskies to turn their ace's performance into a win, striking out nine batters and allowing just six hits.
Either directly or indirectly, all four runs in the game scored as a result of errors, so the most obvious place to look for a tipping point is the final column in the line score. An errant throw from the outfield that wasn't cut off allowed Massachusetts to score its only run, but two errors from Mollica opened the door for Washington's three runs.
But mistakes in pressure-packed moments first require pressure be applied.
Holding a one-run lead, Washington went down on 14 pitches in the top of the fifth and 13 pitches in the top of the sixth, even with a pair of singles thrown in the mix. But after Massachusetts created some momentum for itself with the tying run in the bottom of the sixth, Washington needed just two at-bats to suck the life out of the comeback.
After falling behind 0-2 to lead off the top of the seventh, Niki Williams earned a walk that left Balschmiter visibly frustrated with the strike zone. Then after fouling off three consecutive pitches with a 2-2 count, Ashley Charters lined a single through the box.
Two batters and 15 pitches -- more than in either of the preceding two innings.
One out later, Jenn Salling drew a four-pitch walk and the stage was set for Morgan Stuart's grounder that slipped past Mollica into short left field to plate two runs.
Without that patience, Stuart never would have been at the plate.
"Just in general, you've got to see the ball well," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "And I think our mission since the last two weeks of the Pac-10 season was just see the ball a long time and get a good pitch to hit. Ultimately, if the pitcher has to throw a lot of pitches to put them in the zone, then that's what happens."
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.