Graham Hays talks to Alabama freshman pitcher Jackie Traina about the Tide's super regional championship.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Three days shy of a year to the day after Alabama players and a stadium full of their fans watched in stunned silence as a player in the wrong jersey jogged toward the plate and the trip to the Women's College World Series that awaited, the members of the Crimson Tide and a few thousand supporters in Rhoads Stadium were anything but quiet as the finale of the Tuscaloosa super regional roared toward a conclusion.
And the runner rounding third was moving at anything but a jog.
Looking for the second of two wins it needed on the day to avoid elimination, Alabama was locked in a scoreless tie with Stanford in the bottom of the sixth inning when junior Cassie Reilly-Boccia drove a ball down the first-base line that tipped off the glove of Stanford's first baseman and bounded toward the corner in right field. Already on first base and moving on contact with two outs, freshman pitcher Jackie Traina took off and never stopped running.
A 5-foot-11 freshman built roughly on the same specs as the oak tree that sits beyond the fence in center in Tuscaloosa, Traina rounded second with a head of steam and made the turn at third with Alabama coach Pat Murphy first waving her home and then briefly sprinting alongside her as she neared home.
"Let's run together," Murphy joked of his thought process, "[and] hope one of us is safe."
Alabama AthleticsSenior Kelsi Dunne has taken Jackie Traina under her wing this season -- and it's paid off for the Tide.
The one who mattered was safe, sliding in without a play for what held up as the only run of the game, letting loose a scene of pandemonium at the plate after long seconds in which the team's season hung in the balance.
"I don't even really know where the ball went," Reilly-Boccia recalled. "But my first thought was just, 'Please, let her score from first base.' That's all I was thinking the entire time. She read the ball right off the bat with two outs."
It wasn't any different watching from the third-base dugout.
"I was just like, 'Jackie, come, come, come!' It was so exciting," senior Kelsi Dunne said. "Just something that you don't really imagine happening, I guess. But she was booking it around the bases and Murphy sent her home and Cassie hit a rocket down the line."
With the 1-0 win, coming on the heels of a 10-0 win in the day's first game in which Jen Fenton drove in six runs, Alabama became just the eighth team since the advent of super regionals in 2005 to lose the first game of the best-of-three series and still advance to the World Series. In the process, the Crimson Tide erased the sting of serving up the seventh such instance, losing last season's Tuscaloosa super regional against Hawaii on a walk-off home run by Jenna Rodriguez after winning the opening game as the tournament's No. 1 seed.
That Traina scored the winning run added to the catharsis in its own way, a player whose presence on the field was itself evidence that every season starts anew. But the freshman didn't just provide the winning run; she made it hold up by pitching the final 3⅔ innings in relief to earn the win, retiring the Cardinal in order in the top of the seventh in the wake of her mad dash home. And in stepping up in the circle, she ensured another part of the story gets to come full circle.
The team's senior ace and the program's all-time leader in strikeouts, Dunne gets to finish her career in the World Series.
As responsible as any player on the roster for Alabama's No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, Dunne was nonetheless tiring after pitching the first 15⅓ innings of the series against Stanford, including 8⅓ innings in Friday's heat. With one out in the top of the fourth, two runners on base and a 1-0 count on Stanford's Jenna Becerra, Murphy went to his bullpen. Traina got out of the inning with two ground-ball outs on just six pitches. All in all, she faced 11 batters and sat them down in order.
"I thought they did a great job of changing pitchers when they did," Stanford coach John Rittman said. "Traina came in and did an outstanding job. Obviously, when you see Kelsi for almost two and a half games, I felt we were on her. I felt like we were going to explode at any time, so I thought that was a great coaching move, putting Traina in there. Different pitcher, obviously, with a lot of velocity. Kelsi was throwing a lot of changeups today, and then you've got Traina coming in throwing gas. It worked in keeping us off balance."
Radar guns clocked Traina at 72 miles per hour in Friday's outing, near the upper limits for any current college pitcher. That doesn't necessarily translate to overpowering hitters with strikeouts -- Dunne's strikeout rate, among the best in the nation, is significantly higher than that of her freshman teammate. But it does create a lot of hurried swings and weak contact, especially coming on the heels of Dunne's spins and changeups.
"Kelsi's probably 63, 62 [mph] with a lot of movement. It's like Greg Maddux versus Randy Johnson," Murphy said. "The timing [with Traina] -- immediately the ball is on you."
There are reminders of Alabama's greatest players everywhere in Tuscaloosa, from the murals on the outfield fence to the lobby of the team's new indoor practice facility. Traina took the first step, albeit the first of many, to earning her own such accolades with a performance that had fans chanting her name for a long time after the game ended. That progress wasn't always so pronounced this season, a serious slump at the plate in SEC play limiting her at-bats late in the season. That she remained a rapidly maturing pitcher was due in part to her own talent, in part to the work of pitching coach Vann Stuedeman but also because of a senior not threatened by the hotshot new recruit.
"She definitely taught me to have that confidence in yourself, to go out there and know that you're the best out there and know you're controlling what you control," Traina said.
As she came out of the bullpen in Friday's second game, Traina stopped to exchange a few words with Dunne, as is their routine. In so many words, the senior told the freshman the stage was hers.
"You got to pitch the game of your life right here," Traina recalled thinking to herself.
Just for good measure, she added the run of her life, with Dunne one of thousands of voices roaring their approval.
Best of the rest
Arizona State: After a one-year absence, the Sun Devils are headed back to the World Series for the fifth time in six seasons. Texas A&M made another run at extending the series against the No. 1 overall seed, following Thursday's heartbreaking walk-off loss with a late rally on Friday to cut a 4-0 deficit to 4-2 in the sixth inning, but even if a disproportionate amount of them went for extra bases, the six hits in 14 innings allowed by Arizona State ace Dallas Escobedo proved decisive.
Brittany Schutte, Florida: As a freshman, Schutte showed an affinity for hitting in the postseason. While Florida as a whole didn't make quite as much noise in Oklahoma City as it might have liked, Schutte made the all-World Series team with three home runs among six hits. She isn't back in Oklahoma just yet, but she and the Gators appear headed that way after run-ruling Oregon in Game 1 of the Gainesville super regional behind two home runs from the sophomore slugger.
Ashley Boyd, Oklahoma State: When Oklahoma State's senior day festivities were rained out and a subsequently rescheduled game against Missouri ended in a loss at Cowgirl Stadium, the team's seniors might reasonably have thought their home careers ended with a fizzle. Not so fast. Boyd, a senior hitting just .206 entering super regional play, drove in two runs with a double against Houston, giving Cowgirls ace Kat Espinosa plenty of cushion with which to keep stranding Cougars on base.