Patrick Murphy, Alabama head to Tiger Park for big series vs. LSU

Murphy, Alabama head to Tiger Park  for crucial series

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU catcher Kellsi Kloss congratulates pitcher Meghan Patterson after a strikeout earlier this season. The Tigers face Alabama in a key Southeastern Conference series that begins at 7 p.m. Thursday at Tiger Park.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU catcher Kellsi Kloss congratulates pitcher Meghan Patterson after a strikeout earlier this season. The Tigers face Alabama in a key Southeastern Conference series that begins at 7 p.m. Thursday at Tiger Park.

It’s a showdown between two of the most powerful softball programs in the Southeastern Conference.

It’s a three-game series that might decide the West Division title.

It figures to showcase some of the best softball in the nation. It also overflows with dramatic, riveting story lines.

Look who’s coming to Tiger Park: Patrick Murphy and Alabama.

The 12th-ranked Tigers (37-11, 12-6) and fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (40-7, 12-6) begin their three-game series at 7 p.m. Thursday, followed by games at 6 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday. It’s a series that figures to have players and fans fired up like none other.

After all, this is, among many things, Murphy’s first trip to Tiger Park since The Decision.

You might recall that two years ago, after Yvette Girouard retired from LSU, athletic director Joe Alleva made a big-time splash by announcing the hire of Murphy, a former Girouard assistant who’d built the Crimson Tide into a brand name in college softball.

Days later, Murphy made an equally stunning move. He took a U-turn. He headed back to Alabama, saying he’d made a mistake in accepting the LSU job.

Though obviously surprised by the move, Alleva rebounded by hiring a relative unknown — Beth Torina, a former Florida pitcher who’d been coaching at FIU.

So far, so good.

In her first season, Torina got her Tigers to play their best softball when it mattered. LSU rebounded from an up-and-down year with an inspired postseason run to the Women’s College World Series.

Of course, Murphy and Alabama were there, as well — and though the two teams didn’t meet in Oklahoma City, the Crimson Tide ultimately won its first national championship.

Now, LSU heads into this important series as co-leaders of the West Division, with a much-improved offense and a pitching staff led by Rachele Fico (22-9).

Fico is one of three seniors who will be honored after Saturday’s game, along with outfielder Katie Guillory and catcher Lauren Houston.

“Rachele, Katie and Lauren have been a huge part of this program,” Torina said. “It is always a sad day on Senior Day. These three definitely have a special place in my heart, and they have done so many things.

“Lauren and Katie really get the crowd going. They always keep us going and focused at practice. Rachele has been such a presence in this program for four years. It will be a sad day, but it will be a fun day to honor these three players that deserved to be honored.”

The Tigers are coming off a somewhat disappointing home series against Missouri, during which they dropped two of three games.

Alabama won two of three versus Mississippi State last weekend.

The reigning champions are led by outfielders Kayla Braud and Haylie McCleney, second baseman Kaila Hunt and pitcher Jackie Traina — all top-25 finalists for the USA Softball Player of the Year award.

Braud, Hunt and McCleney are all hitting better than .400 this season, while Hunt has 12 home runs and a team-leading 51 RBIs.

Traina (17-4), last year’s Women’s College World Series MVP, is a dual threat for the Crimson Tide. She has recorded 176 strikeouts in 151.2 innings, and she’s also batting .368 with 13 homers and 44 RBIs.

“We are excited to host Alabama and are excited to have another challenging SEC weekend,” Torina said. “They are extremely talented and have a fantastic pitcher in Jackie Traina. She is definitely going to be tough on our offense all weekend. We will try to adjust as the game goes on, be prepared for her as much as we can and see what our offense can do.”

LSU’s pitching staff, of course, is led by Fico, Ashley Czechner and Meghan Patterson, who have combined to fire 16 shutouts of the season. The staff has an SEC-low 2.00 ERA in conference play.

Fico is eight strikeouts away from eclipsing fellow All-American Emily Turner for third place on LSU’s all-time list. Her 10 shutouts are tied for fifth nationally.

Czechner has won all nine of her decisions and was the only pitcher to beat Missouri; she tossed a two-hit shutout in Saturday’s “Strikeout Ovarian Cancer” game, during which the Tigers wore teal uniforms.

Patterson (6-2) has a staff-low 1.62 ERA.

“Ashley did a great job, and I thought that was one of the better games that she has thrown,” Torina said. “Every pitcher wants to pitch with that kind of offensive support. She worked ahead, and it was fun watching her pitch this weekend. Missouri has one of the best offenses by the numbers in the conference right now. Knowing that, I think Rachele held her own. I know that she will continue to do that throughout the season. She will continue to lead us and carry this team without question.”