TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though the play might have caused the hearts of friends and family to skip a beat, she didn’t give it a second thought. University of Alabama junior second baseman Demi Turner had done what she had always done, so when asked about it her first response was “Sir?” followed by the equivalent of crickets.
This was following Saturday’s victory against Minnesota in the Tuscaloosa Regional, Turner’s first game back in the starting lineup in seven weeks after suffering a horrific concussion and orbital bone fracture at Missouri on April 1. It didn’t make sense to her that a reporter would ask about sliding into second base until it was pointed out that she had gone in face first.
“Oh no, I didn’t hesitate at all,” she said with what was left of her broken voice. “That’s just natural. I can’t really feet-first slide. If I try and feet-first slide that’s when I’m going to get hurt.”
The answer was pure Demi, who probably doesn’t fully get how important she is to this Crimson Tide team either.
While Alabama’s pitching staff was stellar over the weekend, allowing only one run over three games (23 innings), and the Rhoads Stadium fans helped give the Crimson Tide a distinct home-field advantage, Turner was the Crimson Tide’s emotional spark this past week.
It culminated with the back-to-back 1-0 victories against Minnesota, which was ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, and No. 3 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll, while Alabama extended its streak of reaching a super regional to 13 years.
“She’s like the heart and soul,” coach Patrick Murphy said.
Statistically, Turner went 3 for 5, raising her team-leading batting average from .387 to .397, with two stolen bases. Last week she was also named first team All-South Region by National Fastpitch Coaches Association despite missing more than half of the SEC schedule.
But those only begin to tell the story.
If you weren’t watching the game Turner got hurt, don’t look it up. The SEC Network wouldn’t show a replay due to the force of the blow that was a result of friendly fire. With two on and one out in the sixth inning, junior shortstop Sydney Booker fielded a soft ground ball up the middle and unable to get to the bag in time for the force out fired it to first.
Only Turner was in front of her covering second base. She went down in a heap, flailing her legs in agony. When she eventually got up, Turner couldn’t walk straight and a towel was held over her bloody face while being helped off the field.
Any injury to an orbital bone can easily lead to other issues, especially with a fracture or fractures. Just think of the all the surrounding areas on the face and head that could be affected, from breathing and hearing, to sinuses and balance.
With Turner, it caused blurred vision, which took weeks to return to normal.
“I was devastated when the injury happened,” junior pitcher Alexis Osorio said.
So was the team.
After losing the final game and series at Missouri, Alabama managed to take two of three from LSU the following weekend, but then the bottom dropped out. It lost twice at Tennessee, two more at home to Washington, the series at Ole Miss and then the final series of the regular season to Auburn.
From April 2 though May 6, the game Turner returned as a pinch-runner, Alabama went 7-10, with four of the wins coming against midweek opponents (Lipscomb, UAB, Southern Miss and Samford). In seven of the losses the game-winning run was scored in the final inning.
For this program, it was the equivalent of a tailspin.
“Now that she’s back it’s even better,” said Osorio, as Alabama has won six of its last seven, all against teams in the NCAA Tournament field.
“I noticed even when she was out she never got down on herself. She didn’t complain or anything because we all knew that she wanted to be out on the field.”
Turner wasn’t cleared for a full return until last Monday. Murphy, who always calls selection Sunday his third favorite day of the year behind Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, described the team’s reaction as being like Part II of the NCAA Tournament brackets being revealed the night before, when Alabama found out it was hosting a regional as the No. 16 seed.
“We were just so excited,” senior infielder Marisa Runyon said. “She brings that fire [to the team].”
Turner got in two full practices before the regional and decided against wearing any sort of mask or protective shield. Her first round of batting practice didn’t go so well, but she subsequently hit the top of the wall, and Murphy started making plans for how he was going to ease her back into the lineup.
On Friday, Turner took the field as a defensive replacement in the sixth inning and even people out in the parking lot could see her beaming smile at second base. Her first at-bat resulted in a walk and she advanced to second on a wild pitch, only to get doubled up on a fly ball to center field, but with Alabama ahead 5-1 against Albany the outcome was not in doubt.
Now playing second base for @AlabamaSB, Demi Turner.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 19, 2017
The next step was to start, and when Murphy yelled her name out as hitting ninth during batting practice, “The whole team went crazy.”
Turner had Alabama’s first hit of the game and went 2 for 3, but just as important was her solid play in the field. She cleanly handled hard grounders, made an over-the-shoulder catch of a bloop out and didn’t blink during any close plays at second while being credited with five putouts and two assists.
“It is what I wanted because I really hadn’t fielded too many ground balls,” she said her busy day defensively. “I just needed to get some confidence up.”
On Sunday, Turner was moved up to sixth in the batting order and went 1 for 2. She also turned an impressive double play in front of a hard slide while making three putouts and three assists.
“I just think she’s just one tough kid,” Murphy said.
Consequently, this is now a team that’s finding its stride, with numerous contributors. Senior right fielder Chandler Dare had a huge one-out hit in the ninth inning on Saturday. Senior Marisa Runyon is swinging a better bat and had the game-winning hit on Sunday. Freshman first baseman Bailey Hemphill is swinging more and hitting home runs.
Everyone’s making plays defensively.
Combine all that with the standout pitching and Alabama is suddenly looking like a very dangerous opponent. After sending the Gophers home, the Crimson Tide’s turning their attention from the No. 1-ranked team to the tournament’s No. 1 seeded team, Florida.
As for Turner’s voice, except it to also be back to normal by the time the super regional starts in Gainesville.
“It’s fine,” she said with another smile. “I can still play.”