- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- That the top four seeds had all the answers Thursday in the SEC tournament quarterfinals seems hardly surprising.
No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Tennessee, No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Georgia are the only programs that have represented the conference in the Women's College World Series in recent seasons, and those four are expected to be the only SEC teams among 16 national seeds in this year's NCAA tournament. But in all four cases Thursday, the favorites found at least some of those answers in surprising places.
None more so than the unlikeliest slugger in the stadium.
With a 1-0 lead entering the fifth inning against Auburn, Tennessee sent Holly Baker to left field as a defensive substitute. A senior who made 52 appearances but had just 27 at-bats this season and just 47 at-bats in her career, she was the steady glove Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly wanted in the game in place of Melissa Davin, a natural first baseman playing left field because her .316 batting average and 1.076 OPS needed to be in the starting lineup.
True to form, Baker made the final out in the top of the sixth inning with a runner in scoring position, albeit on a routine fly ball. But that wasn't the play that saved the day for the Lady Vols.
Leading off in the bottom of the sixth, Baker drove a 2-2 pitch over the fence in left for her first home run of the season and second of her career. A home run in the postseason is always grounds for a celebratory gathering at the plate, but there may not be a team all month that exits the dugout with more alacrity than the Lady Vols did in greeting Baker.
It was a nice moment for an unsung role player, but when Auburn's Hilary Mavromat hit a two-out home run in the seventh to cut the lead to 2-1, Baker suddenly had the day's best storyline and game-winning hit.
"The only word that can explain that entire situation is amazing," Tennessee All-American Lauren Gibson said of Baker's blast. "We know how hard Holly works every day at practice and everything. She gets to play, but she comes in usually in the late innings for defense -- she's known for her defense, not really so much her hitting. Then to see her hit that ball, it's just a great feeling.
"You could tell there was definitely more excitement for that home run than any home run this entire year."
The win earned the Lady Vols a semifinal start Friday against the third-seeded Gators (ESPNU, 3 p.m. ET), who survived a run-starved quarterfinal of their own with a 1-0 win against sixth-seeded LSU.
The Gators entered the game in decidedly unfamiliar territory, losers of five of their final seven regular-season games, including the final two of last weekend's series against Alabama with the conference title on the line. Florida coach Tim Walton started ace Hannah Rogers in all three games against the Crimson Tide, skipping over freshman Lauren Haeger in the process. Whether that was intended to send a message or merely a strategic gambit, Walton saw something in how Haeger responded when called on in relief of an ineffective Rogers in the regular-season finale.
"I really liked the way she finished the game against Alabama and showed her energy and really showed her enthusiasm in a tight game," Walton said. "We're not going to be able to win with just Hannah, not today, not tomorrow, not next year, so we're going to need Haeger. I recruited Lauren to come in here and be that pitcher for us."
And while Walton indicated Rogers would get the ball against Tennessee, a team she held without an earned run in a tough-luck 1-0 loss in early March, he has another option. It's not just that Haeger struck out eight and allowed just two hits against one of the conference's weakest offensive teams. More importantly, she held her own mentally as her teammates struggled to get any offense of their own going against Brittany Mack, one half of the stellar pitching combination that has carried the Tigers this far.
This isn't a time of year in which freshmen usually thrive, but Haeger, who pitched the United States to gold in the Junior World Championship, may not be your usual freshman.
"I love those kinds of situations; it gets me fired up," Haeger said of the tension inherent in a low-scoring affair. "We have a great defense, so even if I can't strike everyone out, I know my defense behind me is going to make the plays. Those situations are what a pitcher likes."
Alabama has no shortage of ways to win. The Crimson Tide can beat opponents with the long ball, torment them with the short game or simply turn loose ace Jackie Traina to dominate in the circle. The one area that has at times let them down is defense. They entered the SEC tournament with 55 errors, eight fewer than Tennessee and Florida combined.
But on a night when they left 11 runners on base and Traina ran into late trouble in a 5-2 win against Mississippi State, the Bulldogs had no answer for the glovework Alabama's Kayla Braud displayed in left Thursday. Her diving catch with one on and one out in the first inning turned into a double play when she quickly popped to her feet and fired a strike to first base to catch the runner and set the tone for the night. A running catch in the gap for the second out in the sixth inning, just as the Bulldogs had pushed across two runs and were gaining momentum, helped squelch the comeback.
Braud came to Alabama as a prized infield recruit and started at second base from the outset. But an inability to make throws to first base, much like the mental block that plagued former major leaguer Steve Sax, forced her to the outfield after that first season. In her first year as Mississippi State coach after more than a decade as an assistant at Alabama, Vann Stuedeman watched Braud go from a defensive reclamation project to one of the best defensive outfielders in the country.
"Bless her heart, she did everything -- we tried everything," Stuedeman said of Braud's problems at second base. "She's a resilient competitor, and so we put her in the outfield and she embraced it. She'd never played outfield a day in her life and she embraced it and said, 'This is where I'm going to play; this is where I can contribute.' Hats off to her and Alyson Habetz, the outfield coach; they have worked hard. ... She definitely made two great plays that took something away from us today."
Even Georgia, which received predictably valuable contributions from ace Erin Arevalo and all-conference catcher Kristyn Sandberg in a 6-4 win against red-hot Kentucky, strayed a little from its conventional script. Mired in an 0-for-24 slump to close the regular season, Ashley Razey lined a two-run double off Kentucky's Chanda Bell in the bottom of the first, opening the scoring against a pitcher who had been nearly unhittable for the past two weeks to steer the Wildcats back into postseason contention.
"She's definitely out there working every day, really trying to get comfortable with her swing," Sandberg said of Razey. "It showed today, with all the hard work that she put in, getting that big, clutch RBI for us early in the game."
For Thursday's losing teams, there is just the wait until the NCAA tournament bracket is released Sunday. All four have little reason to worry about making that cut, but their search for answers continues.
"We just have to maybe think of something new this week, go back and get them ready," LSU coach Beth Torina said of her team's search for offense that has taken it through more than 30 lineup combinations. "It's tough when you're facing this caliber of pitching day in and day out in the SEC, to find a way to give your team confidence."
It's tough to find the answers against the best the SEC has to offer. And for another year, that's the quartet of programs that will take the field Friday.
That the top four seeds had all the answers Thursday in the SEC tournament quarterfinals seems hardly surprising. But Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia all found at least some of those answers in surprising places.