TUSCALOOSA — There could be only one plucky underdog that made it out of the Tuscaloosa Super Regional, and Alabama’s powerful bats made sure it was the eighth-seeded Crimson Tide.
Of course, a couple of two-out Texas miscues certainly helped.
Alabama’s K.B. Sides and Bailey Hemphill drilled back-to-back home runs during a five-run third inning, both of which came after a two-out error by Longhorns center fielder Reagan Hathaway kept the inning alive. That lifted the Crimson Tide to an 8-5 win in Saturday’s winner-take-all Game 3 of the Tuscaloosa Super Regional at a steamy Rhoads Stadium.
"We said before the game, 'I'd rather have gritty than pretty any day as a ball player, and whatever you have to do, get it done,'" longtime Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said. "And they've done that all year long."
The victory sends the Crimson Tide (57-8) to its 12th Women’s College World Series, but first since a three-year run in Oklahoma City between 2014-16. Eighth-seeded Alabama will face off against top-seeded Oklahoma, which clinched the Norman Super Regional with an 8-0 win Saturday.
"It means the world. We've worked so hard and the seniors have led this team so well," sophomore Maddie Morgan said. "This team deserves everything in this world, and I'm just so proud. I'm speechless, honestly."
Alabama and Oklahoma have matched up six previous times in the WCWS, including twice in the first game, with the two teams splitting the series 3-3. That included the Tide taking two of three over Oklahoma in the national championship final to claim the 2012 WCWS crown. In their last meeting, the Sooners edged Alabama 3-0 in eight innings in the first round of the 2016 World Series.
"When we go to the World Series in Oklahoma, Norman is 30 minutes away, and it's basically a home game for Oklahoma," Murphy said. "We dealt with it in '12, we dealt with it in '14, and it's just part of the deal. There will probably be 1,000 people cheering for us and 1,300 cheering for them, if it's (the Sooners)."
But the Longhorns (46-17) certainly made the Tide sweat out every run on a sweltering Saturday where temperatures in Tuscaloosa climbed into the upper 90s during the midday showdown.
After Alabama’s five-run third inning, Texas responded with its own fireworks show courtesy of a one-out grand slam from Shannon Rhodes in the top of the fifth inning. That cut the Tide advantage to 7-5.
It was a bit of redemption for Rhodes. With two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, Rhodes couldn’t an awkward pop-fly struck by Maddie Morgan. The ball went over Rhodes' shoulder and landed inside the third base line, allowing Alabama’s Skyler Wallace to score from second and increasing the Tide's lead to 7-1.
"I was just trying to keep it simple, put it in play most importantly," Morgan said. "I believe the little blooper was a change-up so I was just trying to do everything I possibly could to get it in play and make (Texas) make a play. Thankfully, it went in our favor."
Morgan came through again with another two-out RBI-single two innings later for an 8-5 advantage. She finished a team-leading 3-for-3 with three RBIs on Saturday. Morgan was one of four players with multiple hits in the game. Alabama also got two hits apiece from Hemphill, Sides and Wallace as the foursome went a combined 9-of-13 (.692) and accounted for six runs and all eight RBIs.
The offense proved just enough for Crimson Tide freshman ace Montana Fouts, who battled through her third game in as many days after shutting out these Longhorns with a complete-game three-hitter Thursday night and then surrendering four runs on four hits over just two-thirds of an inning during a brief relief appearance Friday night.
"She was throwing her butt off, and I'm so proud of her for going through that adversity and coming out strong from that," Morgan said. "Her defense had her back and she's a great player, she works hard and deserves every bit of that."
Fouts (19-5) notched her second win of the Super Regional despite surrendering five earned runs on seven hits in the complete-game effort Saturday. For the weekend, the Longhorns rolled up nine runs (eight earned) on 14 hits in 14⅔ innings pitched by the SEC Freshman of the Year. The eight earned runs allowed Friday and Saturday were the most Fouts has surrendered in back-to-back games all season long.
After struggling early to produce with runners on, Alabama found its offensive groove during the five-run third inning, but only after getting a little assist from Hathaway.
With the game tied at 1-1 after Texas responded with one run in the top of the inning, the Tide got things going with a leadoff double to right-center by Wallace, who advanced to third on a fly-out to center and then scored on sacrifice fly to deep left to retake the lead, 2-1.
In the following at-bat, junior Claire Jenkins sent a 2-1 pitch deep to the warning track in center, where Hathaway drifted to catch it for the final out. Only the Longhorns junior bobbled it and then collided with the wall to force the ball to the dirt for an inning-saving two-out error.
After a walk to pinch-hitter Caroline Hardy, Sides deposited the second pitch she saw from reliever Shealyn O’Leary over the centerfield wall for a three-run home run, landing just a few feet behind where Hathaway dropped the ball two batters prior.
Not to be outdone, Hemphill drilled a no-doubter solo home run to left, her third bomb in the last four games, to plate Alabama a 6-1 advantage entering the fourth inning.
It was Hemphill’s 25th home run of the season to tie the single-season program record set by Alabama legend Kelly Kretschman in 1998. It also gave her 78 RBIs on the year, two shy of the team record of 80 set by former Tide teammate Marisa Runyon in 2015.
"I think people probably expect it now, and we moan and groan when she pops it up or misses one, but she's just become that type of hitter here," Murphy said. "It's like a Mark McGwire-Barry Bonds sort of thing. She hits the ball so hard, and she does have a good eye. She's been very, very consistent this year in terms of what pitches to hit. ... Just a steady offensive threat.