Even one of the best softball complexes in the country couldn’t help Texas A&M change its luck in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The 12th-seeded Mississippi State Bulldogs held on for a 3-2 victory over the 13th-seeded Aggies on Wednesday in the first game of the 2019 SEC tournament at Davis Diamond.
A&M dropped to 0-6 in the SEC tournament with its fourth one-run loss in the event. The Aggies (28-25, 6-18) will find out Sunday if they’ve done enough to make the NCAA tournament for an 18th straight season when the 64-team field is announced. The SEC’s last two teams to finish in last place, Georgia and Missouri, made the NCAA tournament, but they had slightly higher RPI rankings than A&M, which is 45th.
The Bulldogs (33-20, 9-15) advance to play fifth-seeded Ole Miss (36-16, 13-10). That game was originally scheduled to be the fifth and last on opening day, but a 4-hour, 58-minute rain delay forced officials to move Wednesday’s last two games to Thursday. Eighth-seeded Georgia and ninth-seeded Arkansas will play at 10 a.m. Thursday followed by MSU and Ole Miss at 12:30 p.m. The other games Thursday will be LSU vs. Florida at 3 p.m., Tennessee vs. Auburn at 5:30 p.m. and Alabama vs. the Georgia-Arkansas winner at 8 p.m.
A&M, hosting the event for the first time, was in great position to end its SEC drought after pulling within a run in the sixth inning. A&M had runners on the corners with no outs, but MSU pitcher Emily Williams retired the next six hitters, saddling A&M with another frustrating loss.
“We certainly had our opportunities, got our walks, got runners on base, just couldn’t step up and get some timely hitting,” A&M coach Jo Evans said.
Williams was in constant trouble, walking five and hitting a batter. The sophomore right-hander allowed only five hits but had some luck as A&M lined out five times.
“I think the defense helped me out,” Williams said. “They made all the good plays and made great plays, too.”
MSU senior center fielder Kat Moore caught a fly ball a step before hitting the fence in the third inning. Sophomore catcher Mia Davidson threw out freshman pinch runner Madi Jatzlau trying to steal second to end the fifth. Shortstop Bevia Robinson robbed freshman Kayla Garcia of a hit in the fifth by snagging a line drive, and in the sixth, Robinson played a hard-hit grounder off her body and made a strong throw to first for the first out of the inning.
“I felt we were squaring up the ball but had unlucky hits right at people,” said A&M freshman Baylee Klingler, who went 0 for 3 with a sacrifice fly.
Williams threw 139 pitches, only 75 of them strikes. She got behind in the count 2-0 on 13 batters. The five batters who walked along with the hit batsman all reached with either no outs or one out, but only one scored because Williams and MSU kept getting out of jams. They’ve had experience doing it, for Williams came in with 130 walks in 139 innings.
“I was never going to go get her,” MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. “We’re used to it. That’s who we are. It’s our culture. We’ve embraced it. At the beginning of the year, we might have pulled her and we did. I pulled her last year when she did it.”
That was when Williams went 5-1 with two complete games while working behind two seniors. Now she’s the team ace. It was the 11th time this season she threw more than 130 pitches and her 11th complete game.
“We play hard and just try to help her get through it,” Stuedeman said. “Her ball just moves. It spins a lot, and that is good and bad.”
MSU advanced to play a second game at the SEC tournament for a second straight year after going 0-8 in a 10-year stretch. The Bulldogs did it by making their own luck on offense.
Moore had two-out RBI singles in the first and third innings. Moore’s second one was a shot off the glove of second baseman Garcia. Garcia’s leaping effort actually helped the Bulldogs because the ball dribbled into the outfield, allowing Davidson to score from second base. Davidson had reached via a walk, the only one issued by A&M. Senior Emily Heimberger started the rally with a one-out bunt single. Heimberger and Davidson both moved up on a wild pitch, A&M’s only one of the game, which set up junior Fa Leilua’s sacrifice fly.
“We get crossed up [on the wild pitch] that moved the runners into scoring position where a routine fly ball ends up scoring a run,” Evans said. “Those are little things that you look back and kind of pick apart and say, ‘We could have been better in that situation.’ You give up one run instead of the two.”
A&M had a chance to win the game late because junior Payton McBride pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing two hits. She struck out three. McBride got Davidson, the SEC home-run leader with 25, to fly out to end the third with the bases loaded.
McBride picked up junior right-hander Kendall Potts (12-12), who gave up six hits in 3 1/3 innings, her shortest outing in 13 starts.
“I don’t think Potts was quite as sharp as she has been,” Evans said. “But I thought Payton McBride was great.”
A&M, which stranded six runners in the first four innings, scored in the fifth, which was the first time its leadoff hitter reached. Junior Kelbi Fortenberry and McBride sandwiched singles around Garcia’s line-drive out, setting up Klingler’s sacrifice fly.
A&M’s first three batters reached in the sixth, but an RBI single by freshman Morgan Smith was all it could muster out of the rally. After Robinson’s nice play at shortstop, Williams struck out freshman Taudrea Sinnie on a full-count pitch, and Fortenberry was retired on another full-count pitch via a nice play by catcher Davidson.
A&M’s Riley Sartain, the team’s lone senior, and Smith were never retired. Sartain, the No. 6 hitter, had two walks and was hit by a pitch. Smith had two hits and a walk.
“We were able to come back and piece some hits together and get on base, doing whatever it took,” Sartain said. “I was really proud of the way we came back.”
Sartain and Smith reached once with no outs and twice with one out, but neither scored as A&M went 2 for 11 with runners in scoring position.
“Unfortunately, the difference between us and them is they executed and we didn’t,” Sartain said.
It was the second straight year MSU ousted A&M from the SEC tournament. Holly Ward, who pitched a three-hitter in the 3-0 victory last year, is gone but five starters from that game returned, including second baseman Heimberger and Moore who each had two hits Thursday.
Stuedeman said it wasn’t so much the experience from that game that helped but rather the SEC schedule. MSU had series against the league’s top seven seeds, capped off by winning a series at Florida last weekend. MSU hadn’t won a series against Florida since 2004.
“What we’ve been doing all along is getting better and better and better and better,” Stuedeman said, “and trusting [Williams] out there, even though it looks bad.”
NOTES — MSU, which didn’t play A&M this season, was impressed with A&M’s new facility that opened at the end of last season. “This has got be the best softball stadium in the country,” Stuedeman said. “I haven’t been to all of them, but this one measures up.” ... Sartain was named to the SEC’s community service team. Sartain is involved with Aggies CAN, the student athlete advisory committee and Swing4Christ.
Florida 6, South Carolina 5: The ninth-ranked Gators (41-15, 12-12) capped a four-run seventh with a two-run walk-off double by Jordan Matthews. The 20th-ranked Gamecocks (36-17, 9-14) built a 4-0 lead, roughing up Elizabeth Hightower as the Gators didn’t start All-American Kelly Barnhill (27-11). South Carolina’s Cayla Drotar hit a solo home run in the second inning after a long rain delay, and Mackenzie Boesel added a two-run homer the following inning with Kennedy Clark hitting a solo shot two batters later.
The sixth-seeded Gators advance to play third-seeded and 10th-ranked LSU (40-15, 14-10).
Auburn 3, Missouri 0: Morgan Podany hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning as 24th-ranked Auburn (36-18, 10-14) won for only the second time in the last 10 games. Seventh-seeded Missouri (32-23, 12-12) lost in the first round for the third time in the last four years. Missouri hosted the tournament last year but didn’t participate because it finished in last place and only 12 teams made the tournament , which was the case from 2015-18. This is the first year all teams made the SEC tournament.