OKLAHOMA CITY – Kelly Inouye-Perez was a catcher on three NCAA softball champions from 1989 to 1993 at UCLA. She was an assistant with the Bruins for 13 seasons, including back-to-back title years in 2004-05, and won a championship as the head coach in 2010.
On Thursday, UCLA was making its fifth straight appearance in the Women’s College World Series, and the Bruins defended their No. 2 seed with a 7-2 victory over the WCWS newbies, the Gophers, on the first day of the championship tournament. Minnesota now will be in a must-win situation at 11 a.m. Saturday against Washington.
Soon after her team’s victory, Inouye-Perez was talking about the key to large wins in her sport and said: “The team that gets into the game the quickest has the best chance to succeed.’’
It would have been difficult to get into a game much quicker than did UCLA (52-6) on this gorgeous Oklahoma afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 8,439 at Hall of Fame Stadium.
Rachel Garcia, UCLA’s ace pitcher, cleanup hitter and two-time National Player of the Year, worked around a walk in the top of the first with a pair of strikeouts.
The Gophers (46-13) then sent junior Amber Fiser, their first-team All-America pitcher, to the circle for the bottom of the inning. Bubba Nickles — by legend, so nicknamed by a youth coach because there were a couple of other Madelyns on the team — was UCLA’s leadoff hitter.
Fiser started Nickles with a couple of balls, threw a strike, and then threw what Fiser thought would be ball three. Nickles went after the high one and sent it down the left field line and over the fence for a 1-0 lead.
“I was surprised that she hit it,’’ Fiser said. “Props to her. She hit a pitch that I didn’t think she could.’’
What was it?
“A rise ball … in,’’ she said.
The Gophers were down 3-0 against Garcia after three innings. Fiser had to pitch mightily in the second — walking in a run with no outs — to keep it that close.
When it was over, Fiser had walked a season-high six batters to go with six strikeouts. She was lifted with two outs in the sixth after Aaliyah Jordan rocked a three-run homer to put the game far out of reach.
The four runs in the sixth were unearned — after an error by second baseman MaKenna Partain — but the Gophers still had a prayer of chance, until Jordan’s blast.
Gophers coach Jamie Trachsel offered the praise that Fiser “battled’’ and then said: “One thing we talk a lot about, it’s not specifically to Fiser, is attacking lead outs. We didn’t do a great job of that … especially those first three innings. They got their leadoff hitter on each inning.’’
“They never let her settle in,” Trachsel said of the Bruins and Fiser. “That’s the type of offense they have.’’
The Gophers had one hit off Garcia through five, but they started to put the bat on ball much better in the middle innings. Then, in the sixth, Maddie Houlihan singled, Natalie DenHartog boomed an RBI double, and Allie Arneson dropped a hit into left-center.
That cut the lead to 3-2, and Arneson made the right decision: Try to get into scoring position with two outs. She was thrown out at by the closest of margins by Nickles, the center fielder.
That dang Bubba Nickles.
She started the Gophers’ troubles, and ended Garcia’s troubles, because the Bruins quickly put up the four spot in the bottom of the sixth. That win put Garcia at 25-1 for the season, and Fiser’s loss dropped her to 31-8.
“We got ourselves back in the game,’’ Trachsel said. “We also talked about how UCLA’s offense doesn’t give up. They actually score a lot of runs with two outs. We extended that inning a little, and they made us pay for it.’’