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How folks in Austin have waited to say that this time of year. How tempting it is to think about what it could mean.
Playing its first game in the Women's College World Series since 2006, when an Olympian and three-time national player of the year named Cat Osterman was still in the circle, No. 4 Texas beat No. 5 Arizona State 6-3. Behind six hits, including a home run from Kim Bruins, seven walks and stellar pitching from Blaire Luna and Bruins, the Longhorns remained in the winners' bracket and earned a game against No. 1 seed Oklahoma on Friday.
"I think, obviously, it's tremendous to get a win on the first night," Texas coach Connie Clark said. "And it does position us better, I suppose, but more than anything, I like what it does for us mentally in regards to confidence and [being] able to compete exceptionally well against a great ballclub in Arizona State."
This looked on paper like the game of the day, what amounted to a championship elimination game between two of the strongest challengers in the field of eight teams. It lived up to the potential.
There was drama Thursday, with Washington beating Nebraska 4-3 on a walk-off home run in the eighth inning after it had tied the game with a squeeze play in the seventh. There was a statement made by Tennessee, which scored first against the same Florida team that edged it out for a conference title, then stomped on a nascent comeback and pulled away for a 9-2 win. And Oklahoma will not win the title as a wire-to-wire leader after it fell behind Michigan 1-0 before rolling to a 7-1 victory.
But this was the game to see. Perhaps it was aided by the shadows that lent drama as they crept across the field. Maybe some of the crowd that added to the atmosphere was there to stake out seats for local favorite Oklahoma in the nightcap. Mostly, it was the softball. Compelling, intense postseason softball.
For the better part of five innings, it felt like old times for the Longhorns, save perhaps for the crowd that filled every seat in the stadium and lined the railings along the concourses. Osterman was part of a then-record crowd in 2006, but even she didn't pitch in front of an audience like this. She did pitch in a lot of games that had scores equally suited to soccer. The Longhorns were outscored 4-2 during their stay in 2006 -- and they played three games.
Three times Osterman led the Longhorns to the World Series and three times she received little or no run support.
|Six runs of support, including this one from Kim Bruins, were more than enough for the Longhorns.|
Luna and Arizona State ace Dallas Escobedo seemed intent on turning back the clock.
Arizona State entered as one of the toughest teams in the nation to strike out, a program hallmark since coach Clint Myers arrived and a run of seven World Series appearances in eight seasons began. But after Luna walked the leadoff batter on four pitches to begin the game, she struck out Cheyenne Coyle, Amber Freeman and Haley Steele on 13 pitches. Another strikeout followed in the second, then two in the third and two more in the fourth. Even the normally disciplined Sun Devils were swinging and missing about as often as they made contact.
Texas catcher Mandy Ogle calls the pitches for Luna, and it's up to her to get a feel in warm-ups for what is working. The movement Luna gets on her pitches can be her best asset, or her Achilles' heel when it gets away from her.
"That's one thing that we have to talk to each other about and have communication with as a pitcher-catcher relationship," Ogle said. "If it's not the rise ball, if it's not the curveball, if it's not a drop ball, you have to figure out what you're going to get for that strike."
And what was working for Luna as she warmed up for her first World Series start?
"Everything," Ogle said. "Everything was working today. She was feeling good, so that was great."
At one point, counting a game the teams played in March, the Sun Devils had stuck out 17 times in 11 innings this season against Luna and just 170 times in 364 1/3 innings against everyone else.
The problem was that the Longhorns hadn't scored a run against Escobedo in those same 17 innings.
Not for a lack of trying on Bruins' part Thursday night, to be sure. Leading off the bottom of the second inning, Bruins lofted a fly ball toward the left-field fence that she admitted seemed destined for a routine out. But the wind that gusted all day in Oklahoma City caught the ball, and only a leaping catch by Elizabeth Caporuscio kept it from disappearing over the yellow line at the top of the wall.
As the fifth inning began, neither pitcher had allowed a hit, let alone a run. Texas hadn't scored a World Series run in 19 innings, dating to 2006.
"The hitters, really even in warm-ups, were confident in regards to what they were going to look for," Clark said. "And then we had to establish what the strike zone was going to be with our particular umpire. I just thought we made great adjustments and looked very focused. I really was confident in the fourth inning that it was just a matter of time."
Arizona State was the first to prove a pitcher mortal. Caporuscio's single in the top of the fifth finally broke up the dueling no-hitters, and a single by Bailey Wigness and double by Alix Johnson made it 2-0 Sun Devils.
As little success as the Longhorns were having against Escobedo to that point, they were at least keeping the ball in play more often than they had during the game in March, when they struck out 13 times. Instead of swinging at Escobedo's rise ball, one of the best in the sport, they occasionally let it go. With one out in the bottom of the fifth, Stephanie Ceo singled to break up Escobedo's no-hitter. One out later, a walk put the tying run on base, then Taylor Thom doubled into left field to level the score. All of which set the stage for Bruins to loft another ball deep to left, but this time see Caporuscio deflected it onto the top of the wall and over for a two-run homer.
"They just evened it out for me," Bruins said of the assorted sporting deities. "They threw me a bone."
After Arizona State pulled to 4-3 in the top of the sixth, Texas answered with two in the bottom of the inning for the final margin. Bruins closed out the seventh for her first save and a fitting ending. The Longhorns have one of the best pitchers in college softball. They didn't need her to carry them to the finish line. This team's lineup can get there just fine.
"It's a great level of confidence," Ogle said of the hitters. "Blaire's told us every game, 'You get runs and I'll do the rest.' That's pretty much how it's been the entire time. We'll get runs for her. Because as a pitcher, even if [Bruins] is pitching or whoever is pitching, if you have runs behind you, you're going to be a little more settled in."
Osterman was in the stands for Thursday's game, watching as her former catcher Megan Willis led the cheers next to her in the Texas section. For four innings, events on the field had to look painfully familiar.
Or maybe the past is just that.
"We haven't been here in so long, I don't know if I remember what old times felt like, to be honest," Clark said.
Friday brings an old foe, and a juggernaut at that, but these are new times for Texas.