TUSCALOOSA, ALA. – The pitcher who never walks a batter walked in the run Saturday that ended the Gophers softball team's 26-game winning streak and put it in the losers' bracket at the Tuscaloosa Regional.
Two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Sara Groenewegen issued her first walk of the day, and only her 30th of the year, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning to give 16th-seeded Alabama a 1-0 victory at Rhoads Stadium.
"Heck of a softball game," Gophers coach Jessica Allister said of the extra-inning affair. "You're looking at two of the best pitchers in the absolute country. You're not going to find two better than them. That was a battle."
The loss put the Gophers (55-4), the top-ranked team in the nation according to the coaches' poll, in a situation where they need to win three games to win the regional and advance to next weekend's Super Regionals. They play Louisiana Tech on Sunday, two days after opening the tournament with an 11-3, five-inning victory over the Lady Techsters.
The winner of the Gophers-Louisiana Tech game will play Alabama (44-16) on Sunday. If the Crimson Tide loses, a winner-take-all finale will be held Monday, at a time to be determined.
The losers' bracket final had been scheduled for Saturday, but the regional went into a weather delay almost immediately after the Gophers- Alabama game following a series of lightning strikes. Louisiana Tech eventually eliminated Albany with an 8-1 victory that ended just before 10 p.m.
As expected, a pitchers' duel developed Saturday between Groenewegen (30-3) and the Crimson Tide's Alexis Osorio.
Osorio (22-7) didn't give up a hit until the game went into extra innings and struck out 11 batters, the most Minnesota strikeouts in a game this season, while allowing only two hits. She walked five. Groenewegen (30-3) recorded her 15th double-digit strikeout outing, fanning 10 while giving up four hits in 8⅔ innings.
Gophers players were not available to the media as Allister sent them back to the team hotel after the game.
It came down to one walk.
Alabama loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth on two singles, a fielder's choice and a hit batter. A pop-up put Groenewegen one out away from getting out of the inning.
Crimson Tide catcher Reagan Dykes came up wanting to avoid the changeup — she had struck out on one in her previous at-bat — and drive the ball to the right side. Mostly, she wanted to not pop up.
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy gave her the take sign, and the count went to 3-0. The next pitch she also took, this time for a strike.
Murphy had a feeling Groenewegen, who was about to throw her 125th pitch, was having trouble locating. "All right," he told Dykes. "Let's just try to take one more time."
Groenewegen threw inside. It was up to plate umpire Brad Newton. He called it a ball.
Allister pointed out that the Gophers could have avoided being in that situation all together. They left the bases loaded in the eighth inning after putting their first two batters on, and they couldn't score Groenewegen in the ninth after her two-out double.
"Until you watch the film, who knows," Allister said. "But throughout the course of the game it doesn't come down to one pitch.
"We leave eight runners on base. I think we were a little timid in the [batter's] box early on."