Graham Hays catches up with Stanford's Ashley Hansen after the Cardinal's upset of Alabama in Game 1 of the Tuscaloosa Super Regional.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If softball was chess, Stanford junior shortstop Ashley Hansen would most certainly be the queen. To suggest she's surrounded by an army of pawns might not seem the most charitable assessment of the Pac-10 team, but it is as far from an insult as Alabama is distant from the Women's College World Series after the Cardinal earned a 5-2 win against the Crimson Tide in Game 1 of the Tuscaloosa super regional.
Like their chess counterparts, the Cardinal do things in small increments. Unlike the often sacrificial foot soldiers, at least on this night, those small things were the most powerful moves on the board.
No. 15 Stanford didn't have an extra-base hit among the seven it collected -- no surprise given that the Cardinal had just two extra-base hits in four postseason games. What they got instead were seven singles, four walks and the benefit of three errors by No. 2 Alabama, all while the Cardinal's own pitcher, Teagan Gerhart, allowed just five hits, didn't walk a batter and received a spotless performance from the defense behind her.
It would seem like good fortune, if not for the fact that the Cardinal have done it for four games in a row now in the NCAA tournament and need just one win Friday to return to Oklahoma City for the first time since 2004.
"Just capitalizing on their mistakes or a little luck," Hansen said of how a game like Thursday's can turn. "This is a game of inches, and sometimes those are going to go our way and sometimes they're not. And when they do go our way, we need to take advantage of them. And I think we did a good job of that tonight."
One of three finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, Hansen entered the super regional hitting an even .500 through the team's first 56 games this season. She returned to the team hotel hitting .503 through 57 games, the product of a 2-for-3 night. She also added a walk, not to mention a couple of solid plays in the field on a night when the opponent made it clear that solid can't be taken for granted at this time of year.
But it wasn't Hansen who produced the runs on this night. After the Cardinal collectively made life difficult for Alabama ace Kelsi Dunne by working deep into the count early against a narrow strike zone, they turned three singles and two walks into three runs in the second inning. One frame later, two errors, three singles and a sacrifice tacked on two more runs for a 5-0 lead. Every inch of ground offered by the Crimson Tide, the Cardinal took and made their own.
Alabama entered as the team undefeated at home this season, with seniors playing in their fourth consecutive super regional and hoping for the third World Series appearance for their class. Stanford was the one that left with its poise unblemished.
"We're a team that, we rely on some of the seeing-eye hits and some of those in-betweeners," Stanford coach John Rittman said. "We've got some kids that can hit, and we've got some kids that can drive in runs, but we're going to utilize our short game. You saw that tonight; we executed bunt situations very well tonight. We had them kind of second-guessing on what we were going to do with the short game. That's part of fastpitch softball, being able to move runners and execute the short game."
It wasn't just on offense that the Cardinal won the small battles. While Stanford hitters extended at-bats, Gerhart shortened them. She needed more than 100 pitches for the first time in four NCAA tournament starts, mostly because the Crimson Tide finally started looking a little like themselves at the plate in the final innings, but she kept the battles in her favor all night. It's no coincidence that Whitney Larsen's home run in the fourth inning was a solo shot. Gerhart walked 16 batters in three games against Arizona State in the final weekend of the regular season. She's walked just three in 28 innings since.
"I think she's done a great job of getting ahead of hitters and hitting her spots," Rittman said. "We say this a lot, but when you play in the conference we play in and every day you're facing one through nine that can hit, it makes you mentally tough. Physically you have to make adjustments throughout that conference year. Teagan's been through the conference now a full year of facing that kind of competition day in and day out, and she knows that she has to finish."
The danger in Stanford's modus operandi is it leaves a small margin for error. Make a couple of mistakes Friday, and unlike a team like Hawaii last season, it's going to be hard to find the runs to overcome them. But advancing in small increments is working well so far.
As a result, the Cardinal are one game from checkmate against Alabama.
Sun Devils survive scare
Speaking of a game of inches, that's a generous estimation of how close we came to the top two seeds losing on the first day of super regionals. Trailing 2-1 with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh against No. 16 Texas A&M, top-seeded Arizona State got a walk-off, two-run hit from Kaylyn Castillo -- the ball first slid past the shortstop as runner Katelyn Boyd paused between second and third to make sure she wasn't hit by the ball or make sure she obscured the defender's view, depending on your rooting interest, and then was bobbled in the outfield as Boyd made the turn at third and scored the winning run. It was a bit of perseverance from the Pac-10 champions, but was it a warning sign?
Do eventual champions struggle so much just to get to the World Series? Well, yeah, sometimes.
UCLA breezed its way through a super regional against Louisiana-Lafayette last season, winning both games by run rule in five innings. Washington similarly had little trouble with Georgia Tech in 2009 (although those wins came only after the Huskies survived a 15-inning elimination game against Massachusetts in regionals). But Arizona State, including key contributors like Krista Donnenwirth and Mandy Urfer, who are fixtures in the current lineup, fell behind Northwestern in the opening game of a 2008 super regional in Tempe and managed just three hits in a 3-1 win. And in addition to a narrow 2-1 win at home against Fullerton in 2007, a game in which it totaled just four hits, Arizona was one of two eventual champions to lose a super regional game, falling to LSU in 2006. Michigan also lost a super regional in the 2005, the first year the round was a part of the NCAA tournament.
So the Sun Devils can worry some about how Amber Garza and Melissa Dumezich were able to get to Dallas Escobedo, hitting just the 15th and 16th home runs of the season, respectively, off the freshman pitcher. But there's no reason to fret about their championship credentials just yet.