After winning early, LSU falls to Sun Devils, 6-0
OKLAHOMA CITY — Of all the pitches Rachele Fico had thrown during the LSU softball team’s postseason, most produced one of two sounds: the thud of the catcher’s mitt, or the high-pitched crack of a swing that couldn’t quite put barrel on ball.
Those noises — along with matching tones from fellow ace Brittany Mack — were the soundtrack of the Tigers’ thrilling run to the Women’s College World Series.
But Saturday brought a different sound.
It came in the third inning of LSU’s second elimination game of the day, against Arizona State. It was deep and rich, the sweet-spot contact every hitter dreams of, the wake-up call that snaps every eye in the stadium to attention.
Fico, at long last, had made a mistake.
Arizona State’s Alix Johnson drilled Fico’s pitch for a three-run home run to center field that carried the Tigers’ title hopes out of ASA Hall of Fame Stadium with it, and lifted the Sun Devils to a 6-0 win in front of a record crowd of 9,310.
Johnson’s homer was the first against LSU — and just the sixth extra-base hit — in nine postseason games that were characterized by stellar pitching from Fico and Mack.
“She took advantage of a mistake,” said Fico, who came into the game having allowed just four earned runs on 19 hits in her last 33.1 innings. “I left it too far right and up in the zone, and she really squared up on it.”
That homer put the game out of the reach of the Tigers’ struggling but scrappy offense, and they managed just four base runners from that point on against ASU’s Hillary Bach.
Fico started strong, retiring six of the first seven batters, but the Sun Devils battled to stretch three of those at-bats to eight, 11 and 12 pitches. That gave them plenty of time to study Fico, and they came out in the third ready to unload.
The inning began with a sharp liner off Fico’s glove for a single, followed by a popout and bunt single. Then came Johnson’s home run.
“Did it look like I was looking for the outside pitch? Because I was,” Johnson said. “I really was. It makes it a lot easier when you are focused in one side of the plate and you’re expecting the pitch to be there.”
Fico ran into more trouble in the fifth. She got two quick outs, then gave up a hit, and a throwing error by second baseman Allison Falcon brought the run home. A walk and single bounced Fico from the game, and Mack let in two more runs on a hit and fielding error.
For a team with a razor-thin margin of error on a day when it couldn’t lose, those two innings were all it took to send the Tigers back to Baton Rouge.
But it doesn’t overshadow the spectacular pitching that helped bring LSU from a 2-8 regular-season finish to the sport’s biggest stage, and Tigers coach Beth Torina will head into her second year knowing she has Fico, a first-team All-American, in tow.
“These two pitchers are something special,” Torina said. “I think it’s really rare that a team can have two pitchers that are this talented. And we’re lucky we have Rachele for another season next year. I think we have a lot of good things in the in future with LSU, especially knowing that we have her to continue on the mound.”
LSU 1, SOUTH FLORIDA 0: The Tigers advanced to face Arizona State on the kind of bizarre, thrilling play that it seems only their offense could produce: an RBI sacrifice fly to shortstop.
With the bases loaded and one out in the sixth against USF, Falcon hit a soft popup, and the Bulls’ Kourtney Salvarola drifted back on the infield dirt to catch it. As soon as the ball hit leather, A.J. Andrews took off from third base, despite not being told to make a run for it.
“(Salvarola) was facing backward, so my instinct was just to try it,” Andrews said. “It was a really close game, and I knew it would come down to a really close play.”
Salvarola was off balance and caught off guard, and her throw was high and late enough for Andrews to slide across the plate for the go-ahead run.
That preserved a two-hit shutout from LSU’s Mack, who struck out eight Bulls and walked four. She faced trouble twice, in the third and fifth, but was able to escape both times with her arm.
On a wild, double-overthrow play in the third, Mack backed up the third baseman and hosed a runner at the plate. In the fifth, she notched a strikeout to escape a second-and-third situation.
LSU’s winning rally in the sixth came on a hit batter, a dropped fly ball in deep center field, another hit batter, and the infield sac fly.