The LSU softball team's steady improvement throughout the season has come from its mixture of veterans and youngsters. Two of them teamed up in a crucial moment Friday.
Freshman Raeleen Gutierrez hit a sacrifice fly inning in the seventh inning to lift the No. 13 Tigers to a 2-1 victory against Auburn in the opener of a three-game series at Tiger Park.
The situation was set up when senior Amanda Doyle led off the inning with a double against one of the league’s toughest pitchers, Shelby Lowe. Pinch runner Akiya Thymes was sacrificed to third by Georgia Clark before Gutierrez hit the second pitch from Lowe to deep right-center field to end the game and make a winner of Shelbi Sunseri (8-6).
“Right before the at-bat, coach (Howard) Dobson told me to just tomahawk it, get it in the outfield,” Gutierrez said. “Right when I hit it, I knew Thymes was going to score, so we were celebrating.
“You’ve got to take the opportunities. Right before the at bat (pitcher) Shelbi looked me in the eyes and said ‘You’ve got it. I trust you. I believe in you.’ She did awesome on the mound, and our defense was just crazy.”
A week after Sunseri lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in the seventh inning against first-place Arkansas, Sunseri pitched even better. She allowed three hits and struck out two without allowing a walk. She got plenty of help from her defense, especially Doyle who handled six fielding chances flawlessly.
“I was relaxed the whole time. The defense was phenomenal. Amanda Doyle made some incredible plays, Taylor Tidwell made a diving catch. There was no doubt in my mind if somebody put a ball in play it was going to get caught.
“It’s a new day, new team, new opportunity. That’s the momentum we have to take out there. Last week was a hard loss, but it is what it is. We have to come out and play one pitch at a time.”
LSU improved to 30-17 and 12-10 in SEC play. Auburn is 26-20, 6-16.
The only run Sunseri allowed came on a home run by No. 9 hitter Aspyn Godwin, her fifth, in the third inning. Auburn entered the game last in the conference in homers with 20. Sunseri also worked out of a jam in the top of the seventh when Auburn put leadoff batter Makenna Dowell on second on a single and an error.
One out later, LSU erased pinch runner Kayla Horton on a fielder’s choice run down and Sunseri induced Maia Engelkes to hit an easy grounder back to the circle for the final out.
Lowe (13-8) was on the heartbreak end this time. She allowed five hits and walked none with four strikeouts. Before the seventh inning, LSU got only one runner to third base when the Tigers scored their only run in the first. Aliyah Andrews singled, stole second and scored on a base hit by Taylor Pleasants.
LSU coach Beth Torina said Doyle’s at-bat was the biggest moment. Doyle had struck out and flied out previously but connected squarely for a line drive in the left-center-field gap. The ball caromed off the glove of diving center fielder Makayla Packer. Clark executed a perfect sacrifice bunt to move Thymes to third, and Gutierrez hit a deep fly to right-center field to allow Thymes to score standing up.
“That was huge, some of that senior magic,” Torina said of Doyle. “The execution from Georgia was great, especially on a pitch up in the zone. Raeleen puts in the time — I feel confident in all of our young kids in those moments. She did exactly what was asked of her.”
The teams play at 6 p.m. Saturday and wrap up the series at 1 p.m. Sunday.