TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There were two outs in the seventh inning of last weekend’s SEC Tournament semifinal, and Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy was making a substitution when he did something surprising.
Alabama was down 4-1 to Ole Miss against the pitcher who had just seen her scoreless streak of 17 innings snapped. While notifying the umpire that that he was reinserting senior Marisa Runyon, a .248 hitter this season, he leaned and said, “Hey, she’s going to hit a three-run homer and it’s going to be tied.”
“Unfortunately, she got three straight change-ups and flew out to deep left field,” Murphy said while recalling the moments. “I think everyone in the dugout believed we were going to tie it or win it.
“The belief is still there. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
It may end up being the most important thing when Alabama hosts the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional beginning Friday afternoon. Even though the Crimson Tide were seeded 16th in the tournament, Minnesota is considered by many to be the favorite after being snubbed by the selection committee.
It opens the double-elimination regional against Louisiana Tech at 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU), followed by Albany vs. Alabama at 5 p.m. ET (SEC Network).
The Gophers are ranked first in this week’s USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll, and third in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Poll. Alabama is No. 15 and tied for 14th, respectively.
But when it comes to their schedules, there’s no comparison. Minnesota’s strength of schedule ranked 114th nationally and the Gophers were 2-2 against top 25 teams. The Big Ten champions were one of five Big Ten teams that made the field of 64, but despite a 54-3 record didn’t get the chance to host.
The Crimson Tide have played 23 games against teams that were ranked at the time, and 26 against those in the Southeastern Conference, which saw all 13 teams receive invitations to the NCAA Tournament. Despite feeling it hasn’t played well this season, Alabama still had a winning record against league foes and finished fifth in the regular season standings.
In one way that’s impressive. But in another it’s not.
Without outfielders Haylie McCleney and Andrea Hawkins, who hit .441 and .385 last season before graduating, Alabama’s batting has been more than subpar. Not only is the run production significantly down, the team’s slugging percentage has dropped nearly 100 points from its usual numbers.
Some of that has to do with relying on young players in key roles like leadoff hitter Elissa Brown and slugger Bailey Hemphill, who are both freshman, and leading hitter Demi Turner missed the final month of the regular season after suffering vision issues stemming from an orbital fracture and concussion on April 1.
It’s also due to some key veterans struggling. Without Turner, Alabama’s had a half-and-half lineup, with the top four hitters batting better than .300, and the other four below .262.
Murphy’s optimism stems from what he saw out of those four at the SEC Tournament:
“One of the prime examples was the last inning against Ole Miss. Peyton Grantham led off,” Murphy said. “She knows it, we know it, you know it, she’s had a tough year. She could have folded like a you-know-what. She led off, battled for like nine or 10 pitches, had a full count and got a walk.
“That showed a lot to me because she could have gave up. I mean easy. It was a good pitcher, we were down, had a tough year and she rose to the occasion. I thought, ‘You know what? She has a lot more guys than people give her credit for.’”
With Runyon, she wasn’t staying through the ball with her swing, her top hand was rolling over too early, often resulting in weak ground balls on her pull side. That she only did it once during the tournament, and drove the ball hard, was an encouraging sign.
“Things like that, the fans and the media don’t see it, but we see it as coaches and their teammates see it,” Murphy said. “They know that they’ve been kind of fighting these demons on little things and a lot of them won that victory this week.”
Murphy also called it “huge” that those little victories occurred when they did. For a team that was struggling to find its way, and lost four straight series before knocking off Arkansas and No. 11 Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, Alabama has been able to find a little much-needed momentum
It knows it has the pitching to make a postseason run, and Turner appears close to returning to the lineup. With the freshmen no longer playing like freshman, Alabama looks like it could again be a very tough opponent.
“We’re the same team, but I definitely felt this weekend that the best is yet to come,” senior outfielder Chandler Dare said. “I just saw a little more fight, like with Bailey hitting a changeup over the fence. She hasn’t done that all season and she showed everyone just a glimpse of what she can do.”
“It’s just a ‘I’m not going down with a fight’ mentality.”