OKLAHOMA CITY – Despite winning 55 of 59 games so far this season, the two-time defending champion Oklahoma softball team is one game away from elimination in the Women’s College World Series.
The fourth-seeded Sooners suffered a 2-0 loss to fifth-seeded Washington in the opening round on Thursday afternoon before a record-setting session crowd of 8,561 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
OU (55-4) now must advance through the loser’s bracket and will play eighth-seeded Arizona State (48-12) at 11 a.m. on Saturday in an elimination game. The winner will play at 6 p.m. later that same day.
In each of their previous two Division I national championships, the Sooners won their first three games to advance to the best two-out-three championship series.
After just one game in this year’s series, it’s already all or nothing.
“I know this might sound crazy, but this road was meant to be for us and we embrace it,” said OU coach Patty Gasso, making her 12th WCWS appearance in her 24 seasons with the Sooners. “We’ve been very fortunate to win the first game the last couple years and it sets you up nicely, but this road is a different road this year and we are embracing this. We are good at learning lessons. When we’ve had our losses, we’ve bounced back in a very, very strong way, so maybe this is necessary. … This team bounces back like no one I’ve ever seen.”
Three of the OU’s four losses this season have come against Pacific 12 Conference teams and the Sooners have been blanked all three times – a 2-0 loss to Arizona on Feb. 24 in Palm Springs, Calif.; a 5-0 loss at Oregon on April 19; plus Thursday’s 2-0 setback to Washington.
OU often made good contact against the Huskies, but the ball frequently was hit directly at a defense that played error-free ball.
“I have to tell you how impressed I was with Washington and their defense,” Gasso said. “The left side of the field was off the charts. They were outstanding. And those are the kind of plays that you need to make to win championships, and they did. Man, they were really, really, really impressive. We learned. We watched. We were the victim of it.”
Meanwhile, Washington countered with a station-to-station offensive attack that included three bunt attempts, plus the equivalent of two timely swinging bunts.
A scoreless tie was broken in the top of the fifth inning when Sis Bates hit a slow roller to pitcher Paige Lowary, who had just replaced starter Paige Parker. Trysten Melhart, who earlier reached on a bunt, tried to score on the play. Rather than quickly flipping the ball to catcher Lea Wodach, Lowary hesitated and her toss was high and to the right, allowing Melhart to slide under the tag to give Washington a 1-0 lead.
“I really threw it a little too late. I don’t really have anything else to say about that,” Lowary said.
Julia DePonte made it 2-0 on a line-drive single to center to score Kelly Burdick, who also had reached on a bunt.
Lowary struggled in her one full inning of work, allowing five hits and one run. Parker (29-3), who suffered her first-ever WCWS loss, re-entered with the bases loaded and no outs in the top of the sixth and retired the side.
“I guess it was just not my day today,” Lowary said. “Paige really had my back today, which was awesome. We’ve all had games that we’ve kind of struggled this season and another pitcher comes in and shuts it down. So it’s a really big testament to her. I’m not going to take how I did today into any other games because every day is a new day. It’s double-elimination for a reason.”
Gasso said she pulled Parker with a runner on first and no outs in the fifth because her pitch count already had reached the 70s. “It wasn’t anything uncommon,” Gasso explained. “We do it all the time. It was almost expected. We stand behind the decision and I think both of these pitchers threw well. The pitching staff did well enough to win. Our defense and our hitters were not there today.”
The most important play of the game came in the bottom of the sixth inning with runners on first and second and two outs for the Sooners when Melhart dove to her left and made a game-saving catch of Shay Knighten’s line drive in right field. Umpires ruled Melhart completed the catch with her bare hand before the ball squirted free while transferring it back into her glove.
“Honestly it was a blur, but I felt like I caught it initially and that’s all that matters,” Melhart said. “It’s kind of hot out there (heat index near 100 degrees) if you didn’t notice and slippery, so things are going to happen, but it worked out for us, so that’s all that matters.”
Had the ball gotten past the diving Melhart and rolled to the outfield fence, the play potentially could have ended up being an inside-the-park home run for the speedy Knighten and given OU a 3-2 lead.
“It was hard for me to see from where I was (in the third-base coaching box),” Gasso said, “but anytime (assistant) coach (Melyssa) Lombardi goes running out to something, I know that she sees something that I don’t. So I jumped in on that. They said that it was a 100-percent clean catch. The umpire said that ‘I am 100-percent sure that she made a clean catch.’ The transfer was when the ball came out.”
Standout freshman right-hander Gabbie Plain (21-4) earned the win for the Huskies, allowing just four hits with no walks in 5 2/3 innings.
“It was a tough day for the (OU) hitters,” Wodach said. “Gabbie did a really good job. She threw a great game and we can’t walk away without saying that.”
Gasso said of Plain, “She’s a very good pitcher – good, hard-breaking drop ball, different speeds. She’s tough. Very poised. Did a very good job.”
As for OU’s quest for a three-peat potentially coming to an end on Saturday, Gasso said, “As long as we have one pitch left, one out left, we’re going for it with all we’ve got, which we didn’t necessarily look like we were doing today.”
Parker added, “Losing is never fun, but I know how much fight our team has and how much heart that we have. I fully believe that this team can do anything.”