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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Alabama offense missing, Montana Fouts shaky as Tide loses in NCAA super regionals

Montana Fouts’ return to the pitching circle was met by a roar in Rhoads Stadium and her exit in the fourth inning earned a standing ovation from the Alabama crowd, but the Tide’s star pitcher looked less than 100 percent Friday night.

Fouts reached down several times to adjust her knee brace after hyperextending her left leg in the SEC tournament, and the fifth-year senior’s first start since May 11 ended in a 3-1 loss to Northwestern to open the NCAA super regionals in Tuscaloosa.

Fouts allowed three runs — two earned — on five hits through three and one-third innings, yielding the circle to Jaala Torrence while Northwestern ace Danielle Williams handled Alabama’s still-struggling offense.

“The goal of the weekend is to win two games, period,” coach Patrick Murphy said. “They won the first one. Kudos to them. So now we have two games that we need to win. … This was a fact-finding mission, figure out what they got, what they do. Then go home, study a little bit more, watch a little bit more film and then come back with a really good game plan for tomorrow night.”

Alabama, which has scored only three runs across its past three games of the NCAA softball tournament, will face season-ending elimination Saturday night when it hosts Northwestern at 8 p.m. CT. The Wildcats would advance to the Women’s College World Series with a win, while an Alabama victory would force a third game Sunday to decide the series.

“I know tomorrow night it’s going to be one hell of a party at Rhoads,” Murphy said. “We can’t wait to play again.”

Fouts retired her first five batters Friday night but allowed a solo home run in the second inning. That was the only extra base hit given up by Fouts, whose start unraveled in the third inning when the first three runners reached base, including one on a throwing error by first baseman Emma Broadfoot after she fielded a bunt. An RBI single later plated one of those runners before Fouts pitched out of the jam.

“She’s the most resilient, gritty kid I’ve ever coached,” Murphy said of Fouts. “It’s unbelievable what she’s done in two-and-a-half weeks.”

Fouts began the fourth inning by fielding a ball hit to her but then sailing her throw over the first baseman to put the lead-off runner on second base. That led to coach Patrick Murphy visiting Fouts in the circle but keeping her in the game. But after a fielder’s choice out, a walk and an RBI single, Murphy decided to replace Fouts with Torrence, who had pitched 18 and two-thirds scoreless innings in the NCAA regional.

“Obviously I’m not happy with the outcome, but I’m just really thankful that I get to lace up the cleats today, because two weeks ago, I [didn’t] know,” Fouts said. “You always have faith and you always believe, but it was just surreal to do that again.”

Torrence got out of the fourth-inning jam and pitched three more scoreless innings after that.

“She’s just a rockstar,” Fouts said of Torrence. “I always want the ball, but we had talked about how if you can only give 70 percent, our teammates are going to pick up the extra 30. Let’s say I gave 70 percent tonight, Jaala brought 130.”

Fouts shook off any effects from the brace, saying, “I don’t feel much when I’m out there. I’ll get over it.”

Murphy said Fouts can “go any time” and Fouts responded, “Whatever the big man says, I’ll be there” when they were asked about Saturday night’s pitching plan.

The continued problem for Alabama was its hitting. The Tide nearly Northwestern’s seven hits with six of its own but only one, a first-inning double by Ashley Prange, went for extra bases. Alabama stranded six runners.

“I thought we expanded too much,” Murphy said. “That was the downfall, in my mind. We expanded the zone too much and swung at balls out of the zone.

“The theme of our school is, ‘This is where legends are made.’ There is going to be a legend tomorrow night that will come up with a hit, and you guys will remember her name for a long time. I’m confident in that.”

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.

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