AUSTIN — Texas A&M was able to scratch, claw and fight for a couple of runs, but when it was time to put aluminum to the softball in critical situations, the Aggies struck out.
The Texas Longhorns pulled out a 3-2, eight-inning victory in an NCAA tournament elimination game at McCombs Field on Saturday afternoon.
Texas, which snapped a three-game losing streak, kept alive its chances of living up to its No. 9 national seed with a 3-0 victory over Sam Houston State in another elimination game Saturday night. The Longhorns (43-15) advanced to play Houston (38-17) for the Austin Regional championship Sunday with Texas needing to win twice to advance to super regionals.
A&M went 0-2 in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. The stay was short because the Aggies went 4 for 29 with runners on base and 2 for 21 with runners in scoring position with both hits not leaving the infield.
“We were a little bit too slow to make adjustments and just trying to do a little too much instead of just relaxing, trusting in our abilities, trusting our work and allowing the process to take over,” said shortstop Riley Sartain, the team’s lone senior.
The Aggies managed to force extra innings thanks to a gritty leadoff double in the bottom of the seventh by junior Blake-Ann Fritsch. The slap-hitter fell behind in the count 0-2 but battled back to blast the ninth pitch of the at-bat well over the center fielder’s head. The next three hitters couldn’t deliver, but Texas third baseman Shannon Rhodes committed an error that allowed Fritsch to score and tie the game at 2. Rhodes fielded what should have been a game-ending grounder by freshman Kayla Garcia, momentarily glanced at Fritsch at second base, then threw the ball well over the first baseman’s head.
The reprieve was short-lived for the Aggies.
Texas’ Janae Jefferson hit a one-out bloop double just out of the reach of a diving Kelbi Fortenberry in left-center field in the top of the eighth. Reagan Hathaway laid down a bunt single after not showing bunt on three pitches. A&M freshman catcher Haley Lee fielded the bunted ball and threw it down the first baseline because no one was covering first, allowing Jefferson to score for a 3-2 lead.
Texas’ defense, which had allowed three unearned runs in 14 innings, came up with a great play to help close out the game.
Lee hit a one-out single in the bottom of the eighth, but second baseman Jefferson made a running catch in short right field, robbing Sartain of a base hit in her final at-bat.
Texas junior right-hander Miranda Elish got A&M sophomore Dani Elder to line out, ending the game.
“It’s a tough loss,” A&M coach Jo Evans said. “We expected to come out and win this game and get ourselves on a bit of a roll, but I think this is a testament to our resiliency and how we’ve managed this season.”
The Aggies scored in the first without a hit. Fortenberry walked and stole second. She moved to third when Texas shortstop McKenzie Parker booted a grounder hit by freshman Baylee Klingler. Fortenberry scored when Texas catcher Mary Iakopo threw away the ball on a pickoff attempt.
But A&M’s only lead in its last three games didn’t last an inning.
Parker hit a two-out double in the top of the second inning, and Rhodes followed with a home run that cleared the street behind the left-field fence for her first homer since April 7.
They were the only RBIs in a game dominated by the pitchers.
Elish (15-9) allowed six hits, striking out 10 and walking two. A&M junior left-hander Payton McBride (9-7) gave up nine hits. She walked two with no strikeouts. She threw only 93 pitches, compared to 146 by Elish, one of four players who transferred from Oregon after Ducks’ head coach Mike White was hired by Texas to replace Connie Clark.
White along with the Ducks who transferred inherited eight returning position players and three pitchers from a 33-26 team.
A&M returned only Sartain from a 44-18 team that came within an out of reaching the Women’s College World Series. The Aggies started four freshmen against the Longhorns.
“When I look back at how the season started with all of this youth and inexperience, and then I look at today and how we handled ourselves and played with confidence, expecting to win, it makes me really proud of our ballclub,” Evans said. “I thought Payton threw a gem of a game, and we put ourselves in a position to win a ball game.”
McBride constantly got ahead of hitters other than the two times the Longhorns put together back-to-back hits.
“I’ve just been fine-tuning my pitches,” McBride said. “I always say this, but it’s doing the work I do in the week prior and what I’ve done all season to get to the point where I was, trusting in my pitches, trusting in my defense. I just allowed myself to let that happen instead of putting too much pressure on myself.”
A&M’s best chance to score came in the fifth.
Junior Kelly Martinez, batting ninth, fouled off a bunt, then turned a leadoff single into center field a hustle double. Fortenberry followed with a bunt single, leaving runners on the corners.
A safety squeeze failed as Garcia popped up. Klingler fouled out and McBride struck out. McBride, a second-team, all-region pick, had hits in 21 of her last 24 games coming into regionals, but she was 0 for 7 on the weekend.
“I just think we sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves and allowed the game to be more than it was,” McBride said. It’s easier to play the game loose and relaxed than it was what we did out there.”
NOTES — Martinez before she hit that double had been 2 for 44. ... McBride’s walks came in the fifth inning with Lee throwing out both runners trying to steal second. ... Houston opened Saturday’s play with a 5-0 victory over SHSU in the winners’ bracket finale. ... This was the third time A&M and Texas met in the NCAA tournament since the Aggies left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference with the Longhorns ending the Aggies’ season for the first time. The two split a pair of games in Lafayette (Louisiana) Regional 2016 with Texas taking a 5-0 victory, then A&M winning 9-3. A&M grabbed a 3-1 victory the following season in the College Station regional title game. ... Sartain had 232 starts in her career. She batted .289 with 37 home runs and 136 RBIs. She had a .959 fielding percentage and 436 assists, which ranks sixth all-time in program history ... Elish threw a complete game against SHSU, needing only 83 pitches. Rhodes hit another two-run homer.