After being shut out for 14 innings over two days by Louisiana-Lafayette pitcher Jordan Wallace, the LSU softball team had its best opportunity to scratch out a run and keep its season alive in the seventh inning of the championship game in the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional on Sunday.
Trying desperately to put something other than another zero on the Tiger Park scoreboard, top-seeded LSU trailed 1-0 and had the bases loaded with only one out against a tiring Wallace when Southeastern Conference Co-Freshman of the Year Bianka Bell stepped up to the plate.
LSU coach Beth Torina loved the matchup. So did ULL coach Michael Lotief after a visit to the circle to talk with Wallace, who was pitching her 21st inning in the regional and had yet to give up a run.
Almost before Lotief could get back to the dugout, Wallace got Bell to pop up to the circle on the first pitch and then struck out cleanup hitter Allison Falcon to preserve the lead and clinch the title.
ULL advanced to the NCAA Ann Arbor Super Regional to face Michigan, while LSU saw its bid for a second straight College World Series appearance end early.
“If we had the bases loaded again … the season on the line again, I would put Bianka Bell at the plate every single day — and twice on Sunday,” Torina said. “There’s not one question in my mind. If I pick somebody to be at the plate, I would put Bianka Bell there every single time.”
Bell came up after LSU (42-16) mounted one last rally when Simone Heyward drew a one-out walk, A.J. Andrews drilled a single to left, and Jacee Blades beat out a perfect bunt down the third-base line.
But an eager Bell jumped at a first-pitch curveball and popped up to Wallace just in front of the circle before Falcon went down swinging to end the game.
“I felt like I pressed a little too much,” said Bell, who entered the game with a .356 average. “I tried to do a little too much for too many people at one time, and it showed.”
But she wasn’t alone. That’s how it went all weekend for LSU (42-16) against Wallace, who was masterful in allowing no runs and seven hits — four Sunday — in pitching all three games for ULL (46-13).
“There are a bunch of scenarios you can run through in that situation, and a lot of them are not good,” Lotief said of the bases-loaded jam. “The pitch was in the zone, and (Bell) got a good pitch in that situation. She took a good hack at it and probably missed it by half an inch.
“It didn’t work out for her at that moment, but that’s what this game is all about: two good competitors going against each other. An inch here or an inch there, and the emotions would have been different.”
LSU, which stayed alive with an 11-0 win against Central Connecticut State on Saturday night after losing to ULL earlier, went into Sunday’s game needing to win twice to advance to the super regionals.
But the Ragin’ Cajuns defeated the Tigers for the fifth straight time in a Baton Rouge regional, the past three by shutout. ULL also took regional titles here in 2008 and 2010.
“Congratulations to ULL, they have a quality team and a quality program,” Torina said. “Obviously, this is not what we were expecting. This is not the type of softball we have played all year. We’re better than what we showed this weekend. We’re a quality program, and I think that’s what matters.”
After allowing one hit against Northwestern State on Friday, Wallace, who was named the MVP of the regional, hooked up in a pitcher’s duel with LSU All-American Rachele Fico on Saturday and Sunday.
Fico, who pitched both games with her father lying seriously ill in a Metairie hospital, allowed the Ragin’ Cajuns just two hits in both games.
“She is one of the bravest people I know,” Torina said of Fico (24-13). “She is an unbelievable competitor.”
ULL struck in the bottom of the first inning for its only run. Nerissa Myers banged a double off the left-center-field wall, moved to third on a fly ball to right field, and scored on an error by Bell.
That was all Wallace (31-7) needed.
“She just moves the ball around the zone a lot,” said Torina, whose team fell behind in the first inning of both ULL games. “I think she does a good job of mixing locations and throws with good speed.
“Ultimately, I think (falling behind) made us press, and I don’t think we had a ton of confidence this weekend.”