NCAA softball regional: Victorious Utes play with fire in opener, almost get burned by upstart SIU Salukis
One of the cardinal rules of postseason baseball and softball play is that you never “save” your ace in the opener for a more difficult game later in the tournament.
The Pac-12 tournament champion Utah Utes sort of did that Friday afternoon in an NCAA regional game against Southern Illinois at raucous and festive Dumke Family Stadium and it almost cost them.
“It was a lot of fun. It was awesome to see that many people in the outfield (berm). I expect more tomorrow. I want to see all those seats filled on a Saturday. It is just great to play at home.” — Utah shortstop Karlie Davison.
In the end, the Utes got just enough offense and some sparkling defensive gems from Julia Jimenez at third base to hold off the Salukis 11-9 and advance in the undefeated bracket.
Utah (38-13) will play host to Ole Miss, which downed Baylor 3-0 in Friday’s early game, at 1 p.m. Saturday after getting its first NCAA Tournament win since 2017.
“This was a huge win,” coach Amy Hogue said after the Utes pounded out 17 hits to escape against a team that entered the Missouri Valley tournament last week as its No. 6 seed before running the table to make the field.
“Every one of them is at this point.”
Hogue quickly defended her decision to pull ace pitcher Mariah Lopez after the lefty held the visitors scoreless in the first inning with two strikeouts.
But Hogue would have been second-guessed from here to eternity if the Utes hadn’t rallied late to win after blowing an early 6-0 lead.
Utah relievers Sydney Sandez and Sarah Ladd gave up five runs in the third and four in the sixth to allow SIU to tie the game at 9-9 before shortstop Karlie Davison rescued the Utes with a game-winning two-run double in the top of the sixth.
“Yeah, that was pre-planned,” Hogue said. “Get a lead, get Mariah out. I mean, we just said it all day.
“We said it all day yesterday. We said it the day before. And it (was) the right move.”
Suffice it to say some in the crowd of 2,252 disagreed, but Hogue stuck to her guns after the first question she fielded in the postgame news conference was about what came off as a gamble and, quite frankly, a bit disrespectful to the heavy underdogs from Carbondale, Illinois.
“Our other kids are going to need to throw innings for us in the postseason,” Hogue said. “If you just have plans to get through one game then maybe you don’t do that, but we have plans to go a really long way and win championships, and we are going to need a lot of pitching to do that.”
So with Utah sporting a 5-0 lead after Sophie Jacquez and Abby Dayton had driven in runs and Davison had blasted a 3-run homer, Hogue handed the ball to Sandez.
The super senior mowed the Salukis down in order in the second, and when Jacquez had another RBI in Utah’s half of the second inning to score Eli Bonstrom and give Utah a 6-0 lead, Hogue’s move looked genius.
But SIU’s hitters caught fire in the third, and Hogue had to replace Sandez with lefty Sarah Ladd, who hadn’t pitched in weeks.
Suddenly, what was seemingly headed toward an eight-run mercy rule affair got scary for the heavily favored Utes.
“Our team had their backs and found a way to win anyway,” Hogue said.
With Ladd settling down and finding her rhythm, Utah stretched its lead to 9-5, but the Salukis fought back.
They scored four runs with two outs in the sixth to send a ripple of shock through the crowd.
Junior Rylie Hamilton’s shot to right field sailed over Shelly Ortiz’s head and was inches, maybe a foot, away from clearing the fence.
Instead, it bounced off the right field wall and scored two to tie it at 9-9.
Hamilton said she didn’t get all of it, and was probably aided by Utah’s thin air a bit.
“I was honestly surprised it went that far,” said the infielder from Cabot, Arkansas.
Hogue brought All-Pac-12 pitcher Lopez back after Hamilton’s blast nearly gave SIU the lead, and Lopez clearly wasn’t as sharp as she was in the first but still had enough to get Bailey Caylor to ground into a force play after issuing two walks to load the bases.
Hogue said she had to issue a couple messages to her team when the Salukis rallied.
“Mostly I knew if we stayed calm and had innings to swing the bat, then we would be fine,” she said. “If we panicked at all, then we would be in trouble.
“There were times when I saw a little bit of panic, and that was the only time I would bite anybody, and I did a little bit of that. But mostly it was ‘keep the bats going’ because it was a lot of that side of the game that was absolutely fantastic.”
Can the Pac-12 champion Utes make a deep run in the NCAA softball tournament?
In the sixth, Davison’s double was the difference, scoring Dayton and Hailee White and giving the Utes some breathing room for Lopez to close it out in the seventh.
So you can call the win Mariah’s, with a huge assist from Davison (3 for 4, five RBIs) and Utah’s other big hitters.
“It was a lot of fun. It was awesome to see that many people in the outfield (berm),” Davison said.
“I expect more tomorrow. I want to see all those seats filled on a Saturday. It is just great to play at home.”
Surviving a bit of a game never hurts, either.