The Cardiac 'Cats have mounted comeback effort after comeback effort, but their pulse slowed on Sunday afternoon.
Despite a valiant effort from Danielle Williams, who pitched all six innings and surrendered just five hits after pitching 10.2 combined innings in Games One and Two, Northwestern (42-13, 20-3 B1G) couldn't find its offensive spark against Alabama (45-20, 14-10 SEC), losing 3-2.
Montana Fouts and Jaala Torrence combined for a stellar Crimson Tide pitching performance, as they constantly stranded Northwestern runners inning after inning. A fifth-inning solo home run from Jenna Johnson provided all the insurance they needed to complete their 1-0 series comeback and help the Tide advance to Oklahoma City.
While the 'Cats displayed great resilience, as Maeve Nelson crushed a home run off Fouts in the seventh inning with one out, their inability to generate consistent offense put them in a hole that they couldn't overcome. It will mark the end of the decorated careers of Northwestern's five grad students: Williams, Nelson, Nikki Cuchran, Jordyn Rudd and Skyler Shellmyer, who forced Alabama to sweat until the final pitch.
Shellmyer got the ‘Cats off to a promising start, as she reached on a short dribbler for an infield single. Bama catcher Ally Shipman couldn’t secure Torrence’s next rise ball, which allowed Shellmyer to take second base. However, Torrence quickly recovered, as she retired her next three batters to get out of the jam.
The Crimson Tide also started fast on offense. Ashley Prange, who smacked the game-winning single the night before, got aboard with a leadoff walk. Johnson’s bunt moved her over to second, giving the Tide their own scoring opportunity.
Bailey Dowling smacked a grounder straight to Williams, who saw Prange trying to advance to third and fired over there. The ‘Cats appeared to have her in a rundown, but Hannah Cady’s throw back to second was too high, leaving everyone safe. That didn’t faze Williams at all, as she responded by forcing two straight flyouts to keep the game scoreless.
Northwestern got another runner on base after Angela Zedak drew a one-out walk. Aside from that, though, Torrence had no trouble getting through the second inning. Likewise, Williams coasted to a 1-2-3 in the bottom frame.
In the third, NU still couldn’t generate much offense. A sparking stab and flip from Alabama second baseman Kali Heivilin robbed Shellmyer of a second hit. Nelson smacked a single, but a lineout from Rudd kept the ‘Cats without a run.
During the first at-bat of the bottom of the third, the umpires detected a lightning strike, sending the game into a delay for an hour even though there was no rain. Since Alabama ace Montana Fouts had not even begun warming up while Williams was 33 pitches into her outing, the stoppage had the potential to give the Tide a huge advantage.
That’s exactly what it did. Kristen White established momentum by speeding down the line on an infield single, and barely beat out Rudd’s throw to second. After Prange drew a walk and Johnson placed her bunt perfectly to reach safely, Alabama had the bases loaded with no one out.
Following a shallow flyout from Dowling, Shipman stepped up to the plate. She hammered a line drive single off Williams, driving in White and Prange. The Crimson Tide took a 2-0 lead, its largest of the series. Despite an Alabama double steal with two outs, Williams struck out Heivilin to get out the inning, but the damage had been done. The Wildcats had 12 outs to come back.
They got to work quickly. Cuchran drew a one-out walk, and Zedak moved her to second with a single. That prompted Alabama coach Patrick Murphy to bring in Fouts for Torrence. In Game Two, the ace retired all eight batters she faced, and she appeared to keep up her dominance. She struck out Kansas Robinson swinging, which brought up fellow first-year Kelsey Nader.
Nader knocked a critical RBI single off Fouts in Game One, and she came through against the Alabama grad student again in Game Three. The NU right fielder blooped a single over Kenleigh Cahalan's glove, scoring pinch-runner Bridget Donahey from second. Although pinch-hitter Kendall Peterson couldn't keep the inning going, Northwestern had cut the Bama lead in half.
Cahalan singled to lead off the inning, but Williams retired her next three batters to get out of the fourth. The top of Northwestern's order provided the middle third with another opportunity, as Shellmyer stroked a leadoff single off Fouts. Nelson advanced her to second with a sac bunt, prompting Alabama to intentionally walk Rudd.
But once again, the Wildcats failed to capitalize. Cady flew out to center, and Fouts forced Cuchran to ground out. Rudd and Shellmyer were the sixth and seventh runners NU had stranded on the day.
Johnson took complete advantage, as she led off the bottom of the fifth by smashing a home run off the left-field foul pole. The Crimson Tide extended their lead to 3-1 with just two innings to go, and Johnson's dinger provided immense insurance given both teams had struggled to generate offense in the past two games. Williams retired her next three batters, leaving the 'Cats six outs to try and mount another comeback effort.
While Robinson and Zedak managed to make solid contact, Fouts continued to hold Northwestern's offense down. After Nader reached on an infield single — hitting Fouts' knee brace with a scorching ground ball in the process — Alabama scooped up a nice bunt from Nieto and nipped her by a step at first base. That ended the top of the sixth, putting Northwestern on the brink of elimination.
With one out in the seventh, Nelson refused to back down. She demolished a Fouts pitch, sending it deep into left field for a solo home run. It cut the Northwestern deficit to 3-2. But Fouts regained her composure, as she retired Rudd and struck out Cady swinging with a full count to end NU's season.
After advancing to the Women's College World Series last year, Northwestern will fall short of Oklahoma City. Given five of the team's brightest stars have now likely exhausted their eligibility, it makes the tight defeat hurt that much more.