LSU softball team opens rough-and-tumble SEC schedule with a bang — against Bama _lowres

Associated Press/The Oklahoman file photo by SARAH PHIPPS -- LSU teammates mob Bianka Bell at the plate during the Tigers' win against Alabama at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City on May 30. The teams open Southeastern Conference play Friday at Tiger Park.

The LSU softball team needed one more out to keep its season alive.

Its four-run lead had been cut in half in the top of the seventh inning, courtesy of a sacrifice fly and a wild pitch. Alabama, in the midst of a season-saving rally, had the bases loaded with a trip to the 2015 Women’s College World Series semifinals on the line.

Then-freshman ace Carley Hoover, having come on in a save situation, was shaky to that point. But she induced a grounder in the next at-bat, sending the Crimson Tide home while the Tigers inched one step closer toward a national title.

So when No. 6 Alabama clashes with No. 4 LSU in the teams’ Southeastern Conference opener at 6 p.m. Friday in Tiger Park, things may be more heated than usual.

“We ended their season last year,” junior right fielder Bailey Landry said. “So we know that’s going to bring a lot of fuel to the games this weekend.”

The Tigers (21-2) know exactly what that feels like.

After Arizona eliminated LSU from NCAA Regional play in 2014, the Tigers redeemed themselves in an early-season rematch the following year. But vengeance was sweeter at the Baton Rouge Super Regional, when LSU clinched a berth in the WCWS by sweeping the Wildcats.

“Last year when we played Arizona in the supers, there was definitely something to it,” Landry said. “They finished us (the previous year), so it was just a little bit more motivation to get to the World Series. I know (Alabama is) a good program and is definitely going to give it their all, but I think they might have a little bit more fire in them as well.”

As if this weekend’s series needed any more intrigue. It pits two top-six rivals against each other, both intending to return to, and win, the WCWS.

One other thing: Lest anyone forget, Beth Torina got the job at LSU in 2011 only after Alabama’s Patrick Murphy accepted it, then backed out.

As for this season, neither team can even think about the WCWS without first battling through the SEC, which is home to nine of the top 17 teams in the most recent NFCA/USA Today Top 25 poll. Last year’s eight-team WCWS field featured five SEC teams, and three of LSU’s four opponents in the event were conference foes.

That’s why Torina isn’t reading too much into starting league play against a top-25 team.

“Honestly there are not many opponents in the SEC that aren’t like that,” she said Wednesday. “It’s just the state of softball in the SEC right now. It’s a tough league. You’re going to hit the ground running with whomever you open up with.”

The Tide (21-2) still brings a fearsome one-two pitching punch with junior Sydney Littejohn and sophomore Alexis Osorio, the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year. They’ve combined to throw 11 complete games, and Osorio is known for the wicked spin on her riseball.

“Everything just spins really true, and she puts the ball in a really good spot,” LSU catcher Kellsi Kloss said. “It’s hard to spin the ball that much and still throw hard, but she does that.”

LSU, winner of 17 straight, counters with a pitching staff that sports a 0.97 ERA — but it could be short-handed in the circle.

Sophomore Allie Walljasper, who hasn’t pitched since Feb. 27, hadn’t practiced as of Wednesday. She sported a wrap around her right arm during last weekend’s LSU Invitational, and Torina, who indicated Walljasper will be reevaluated at the end of the week, declined to reveal the pitcher’s injury.

The Tigers still have Hoover, who earned NFCA National Pitcher of the Week honors for her three-win performance last weekend. The sophomore downplayed her accomplishments, but she’ll face heightened competition this weekend.

Both teams hit above .337 and score more than seven runs per game, setting the stage for a typical meeting of SEC powerhouses.

“They’re one of those lineups where you really don’t have a break,” Kloss said of Alabama. “Every single person, (Nos.) 1 through 9, is really good.”

Sophomore outfielder Emily Griggs conceded Alabama will be a good litmus test for the Tigers, though she noted that championships aren’t decided until June.

But the road to that national title starts Friday with the first of what may be several showdowns against the Tide.

“It doesn’t matter when we play them. We’re going to play them eventually,” junior third baseman/catcher Sahvanna Jaquish said. “We might even play them in the World Series.”