SAN MARCOS, Texas — All it took was one bobble, and Louisiana-Lafayette found itself watching another team celebrate a softball conference championship.
South Alabama got a stellar pitching performance from an unexpected source, freshman Devin Brown, silencing the power-laden Ragin’ Cajuns lineup to give the Jaguars a 2-0 victory in the Sun Belt Conference tournament title game Saturday.
Brown didn’t start but was in the circle two batters into the game when USA starter Farish Beard was called for five illegal pitches on her first nine offerings.
Brown came in and proceeded to check the 10th-ranked and top-seeded Cajuns on five hits, stranding 10 runners — including a bases-loaded situation in the bottom of the seventh.
“We hit a couple well, right at them,” UL-Lafayette associate head coach T.J. Hubbard said. “(Brown) did a good job of keeping us guessing all day.”
South Alabama’s victory clinched a spot in the NCAA softball tournament. The Cajuns, who likely will host a regional next weekend, will learn their draw when the bracket is unveiled at 9 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU).
The day appeared it would extend into the night: Neither team managed to scratch across a run through the first six innings, and Cajuns pitcher Jordan Wallace recorded two quick outs in the top of the seventh. But two walks and a single loaded the bases, and Haleigh Lowe’s ground ball bounced off first baseman Kelsey Vincent’s glove. Lowe evaded a tag at first as Amanda Minahan scored the go-ahead run.
It was a huge contrast to one day earlier, when the Cajuns (39-9) pounded five home runs in a 6-3 win that put them into the title game and dropped the Jaguars (38-11) into the losers’ bracket. USA topped Georgia State 3-1 late Friday to get to Saturday’s finale.
“Coming out after yesterday when Lafayette beat us, we could have laid down and given in and given up for the weekend,” said Jaguars shortstop Kaitlyn Griffith, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “Our goal was to bounce back against Georgia State and use that momentum going into today.”
The No. 22 Jaguars, winners of the tournament title three of the past four years, had to hold their breath in the bottom of the seventh when Brown (10-4) issued a one-out walk to No. 9 hitter Kelli Martinez and a two-out walk to Shellie Landry around a pair of ground-ball outs. That brought UL-Lafayette catcher, Sun Belt Player of the Year and national home run leader Lexie Elkins to the plate.
Brown didn’t give Elkins anything close to the plate, walking her on four pitches to load the bases and put the tying run at second base. But cleanup hitter Samantha Walsh grounded back to Brown in the circle for the final out.
Brown entered the game in the first inning with a runner on second and nobody out, after Beard walked Haley Hayden and moved her to second base during a streak of called illegal pitches. Beard was hit for at least eight illegal pitches in USA’s win over UL-Monroe in the winners’ bracket semifinals.
“Devin did an awesome job coming in,” USA coach Becky Clark said. “What a big stage for a freshman coming in against that offense. She has so much spin on the ball. After (Friday’s loss), we came back and talked about (how) they were catching too much plate, and Lafayette’s the kind of team that knows what to do with a ball that’s catching white.”
The Cajuns threatened several times while stranding 10 runners. Landry and Elkins had back-to-back singles before a ground ball ended the third inning. D.J. Sanders singled and reached third on an error in the fourth before an inning-ending fly ball. And the Cajuns had runners at first and second with one out in the sixth before a liner right back to Brown turned into a double play.
“We had our opportunities,” Hubbard said. “Getting runners to second and third with our 2-3-4 hitters up, having them at the plate in the seventh with a chance to win the game, you can’t ask for more than that.”
Wallace (16-5) got the first two outs in the seventh before walking Minahan, and Blair Johnson’s single through the right side and another walk to Amanda Herron loaded the bases before Lowe’s ground ball. Wallace then walked Emily Messer to force in an insurance run that wasn’t needed.
Wallace struck out seven in a three-hit effort but hurt herself with six walks.
“Jordan was great,” Hubbard said. “Just that one series of two at-bats got us in trouble in the seventh, but she competed. She was attacking the zone and keeping them off balance.”