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|Arizona State pitcher Hillary Bach delivered a four-hit shutout to eliminate LSU on Saturday.|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Hillary Bach took care of business off the field in college in just three years. Literally. The Arizona State pitcher graduated from the school with a degree in business marketing after her junior year and is on track to complete her MBA about the time the softball world gathers for next year's Women's College World Series.
All that remained was some unfinished business in the circle. Saturday night, she went a long way toward finishing it.
A night after Hall of Fame Stadium provided the stage for a display of domination by Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts, Bach offered a seven-inning soliloquy on sticking with something. Where Ricketts was overpowering against California, Bach was resilient against LSU.
She went the distance in Arizona State's 6-0 win in an elimination game that earned the defending champions a spot opposite Oklahoma in Sunday's semifinals (the Sun Devils need to beat the Sooners twice to reach the championship series).
One performance came from a 6-foot-2 Californian, Ricketts, who arrived in Oklahoma as the most prized recruit in the country. The other came from a 6-foot-2 Oklahoman, Bach, who went to Arizona State and found herself in the impossible position of replacing Katie Burkhart, an All-American who led the program to its first national title. It was only fitting that Ricketts made her start on the second day of play, when unbeaten teams try to make championship statements, while Bach took the ball on Saturday, a desperate scramble to avoid being among the half of the field eliminated.
|Arizona State's Alix Johnson is greeted by coach Clint Myers after her three-run homer in the third inning.|
A pitcher who doesn't fit the profile of classic strikeout ace, Bach always had to scramble to be recognized for who she is rather than measured against who she isn't.
But with the season on the line, Arizona State coach Clint Myers gave the ball not to ace Dallas Escobedo but to Bach, just as he did with his team's season on the line in Game 2 of last week's super regional against Louisiana-Lafayette. Bach answered again.
"There is no doubt," Myers said of his faith in Bach. "Dallas has pitched the first two games of the tournament. We know what we have to do. We were completely confident in Hillary's performance all year long. I mean, look at her numbers, look at the games. We had to beat Lafayette twice, and who pitched the very first [elimination] game? This young lady here. Why would we not pitch her tonight? This is a team and we've told them all to be ready any time."
That wasn't the case last season. A freshman sensation, Escobedo pitched every inning for Arizona State in its march to the title. Bach watched from the bench. After carrying the load for the team in her first two seasons, making 75 starts and throwing 472 innings as a freshman and sophomore, she pitched just 62 2/3 innings as a junior and not a single inning in the postseason.
So when she took the ball Saturday against LSU, her last memory of pitching in the World Series came from a game three years ago on another elimination Saturday -- her team even sitting in the same dugout as that day.
A workhorse that 2009 season for a team that surprised many by getting to the World Series without Burkhart, she was the victim of one of the event's most memorable moments, a pinch-hit grand slam by Alabama freshman Jazlyn Lunceford. To go from that moment of despair to the smile she wore Saturday is quite a journey.
"I just remember Coach Myers in my face, about two inches away, telling me how terrible it was that the ball went over the fence," Bach said of 2009. "And I remember thinking 'Gosh, I would never do anything to hurt my team; I only want to help my team, and I'm just really disappointed that happened that way.' ... Just coming out this year [I was] really focusing on relationships with teammates and being able to help any way that I can. If I can take this game and give Dallas the day off she deserves if we were in the winner's bracket, that's going to make a really big difference tomorrow."
Never a strikeout pitcher in the same mold as Escobedo or so many other pitchers in Oklahoma City, Bach put one of the tournament's steadier defenses to good use early in Saturday's game. An infield single for LSU with one out in the bottom of the first inning went for naught when Arizona State promptly turned a 6-4-3 double play. A leadoff single for the Tigers in the bottom of the second evaporated when catcher Amber Freeman picked the runner off first base. And a leadoff walk in the third inning was eliminated on a sharply turned 4-6-3 double play.
Three innings, three potential danger spots and yet Bach had faced the minimum nine batters when it was over. Not even a spate of illegal pitches could knock her off her game. Called for four in the third and fourth innings, she went to the bullpen during her team's extended rally in the fifth and threw until she was comfortable she could meet the umpire's demands. LSU managed just one base runner the rest of the way, and the umpire's arm never went up to signal another illegal pitch.
"To get me out of those innings when I was struggling with illegal pitches, that was all them," Bach said. "Two double plays in one game, I'm not sure the last time that happened. Diving efforts by [second baseman Sam Parlich], making those plays with speedy runners. It was great defense all around. ...
"I'm so happy to be on this team, so grateful for incredible defense. I always say I have the best defense in the nation."
Bach's performance aside, Arizona State has to feel better about its chances Sunday against Oklahoma after scoring six runs on nine hits against an LSU pitching staff that had allowed one or fewer runs six times in the postseason. Alix Johnson provided the biggest contribution with a three-run home run in the third inning against Rachele Fico that broke the game open, but the Sun Devils also strung together four singles and two walks to add three more runs in the fifth inning.
Even one of the nation's best offenses, which Arizona State was during the regular season, would have its work cut out for it against Ricketts, but beating her while in a slump would be impossible.
"We've just got to get a few more of the seniors going, and I think we're going to be back to the way we were for 60 ball games," Myers said. "It's the first step of something very special, we hope."
The ball likely will go back to Escobedo when Arizona State again looks to stave off elimination Sunday afternoon. The sophomore may well even get the start if the Sun Devils force a winner-take-all second game Sunday.
But should her team need her to start or enter the game at some point thereafter, Bach will be there. She decided she wanted to graduate in three years after listening to the mother of the late Pat Tillman address an orientation session for incoming student-athletes. He had graduated early while playing football, and she thought it sounded like a good challenge.
Tillman's mother also spoke of what it means to be a good teammate, what it means to be the epitome of a Sun Devil, and Bach has been just that this season.
She deserved the chance she got to create a more pleasant World Series memory than the ball going over the fence three years ago. More than that, she earned the chance.