Bianka Bell was having a day. And not in a good sense.
After carrying the LSU softball team to so many victories during a storybook run through the regular season, with their season on the line, her bat went all Sunday silence in the Tigers’ first game against Arizona State.
Bell was 0-for-4. LSU won 5-0 anyway because of the stellar, offense-vacuuming pitching of Carley Hoover and the timely hitting of Constance Quinn and Sahvanna Jaquish.
In Game 2, the winner-take-all/loser-go-home finale to the NCAA tournament’s Baton Rouge regional, Bell started 1-for-4 — with a big strikeout looking with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth.
In the seventh, Bell got rung up by a grounder that spun up her arm and bashed her in the face. Shaken, she stayed in the game, only to have another grounder in the seventh by Haley Steele find her glove.
Bell thought it skimmed just off the dirt for a line-drive out, but it bounced to her almost imperceptibly, allowing Chelsea Gonzales to score from third for a 3-2 lead.
“A lot was going through my head,” Bell said. “I thought this could cost us the game.”
Bottom of the seventh. LSU had already tied it at 3 on a chopper by Bailey Landry over third base. Bell had a chance to drive home the winning nail but grounded out to third.
Extra innings, and another opportunity for Bell in the ninth after a pair of 1-2-3 innings from Hoover.
It looked like Landry had delivered the game-winner, but her single to right struck A.J. Andrews as she ran from first to second, so she was out. That put Andrews at first and sent Emily Griggs, who had her teammates hugging and flinging water and Dr. Seuss hats when she crossed the plate — it’s softball, there’s all sorts of wonderful weirdness like that — back to second base with two outs.
Pressure? Sure. Enormous pressure. But Bell wouldn’t let this chance go by. She scalded an under-armed offering from Arizona State wunderkind pitcher Breanna Macha (she threw 385 pitches and 28 of ASU’s 29.2 innings in the regional) back up the middle, bringing home Griggs from second.
As Bell rounded first, she clenched her fists and bent her head back to unleash a roar that had to be equal parts elation and relief.
“After my previous at-bat, Sandra Simmons and Jenna Kramer came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to find a way to do it,’ ” Bell said. “Having them believe in me and made me believe in myself ... it’s amazing I had that much support behind me.”
Bell’s batting average took a beating in the regional, dropping from .459 to .435, as did she physically. Still a stellar campaign overall, standing as it is with 17 home runs and 71 RBIs, both numbers tied for the team lead with Jaquish.
And if she was in any pain after that grounder in the seventh ate her up, she was beaming too happily to show it.
“I’m glad I got it done,” Bell said.
Her regional is a microcosm for the season LSU has had.
After starting 25-0 and running all the way up to the No. 1 ranking in the country, everything looked so easy for the Tigers.
Then came the late-season struggles, with losses in six of their last nine games entering NCAA play, including a one-and-done loss to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference tournament that they hosted at Tiger Park.
“We’ve played No. 4, No. 8 and No. 10 in the last seven games” entering NCAA play, LSU coach Beth Torina said. “If we played a different schedule, we would have had zero questions coming in.”
But the fact is the Tigers were tested and often didn’t pass late in the season, and they were one inning away from being the only top-eight NCAA seed not to advance to the super regional round. They overcame Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Arizona State, then fought off Nebraska 3-2 in 10 tension-filled innings in an elimination game for the right to even reach the antacid round against Arizona State.
That’s the beauty and the devastation of tournament play. Victory and defeat occupy opposite sides of a slim coin that could fall either way.
It looked like the coin came up defeat for LSU after the worm-burning grounder to Bell in the seventh. But the Tigers fought back with a pair of clutch at-bats and advanced, to host a super regional for the first time — against Arizona, which eliminated LSU in the regional round last year.
Perhaps with one swing of the bat, Bell is ready to lead them even further.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.