Hemphill, Sides Lead Alabama In Another Comeback Win
TUSCALOOSA, Al. -- Alabama junior first baseman Bailey Hemphill, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection, had been a bit handcuffed recently, in terms of not getting many pitches to allow her to work her true magic with a bat in her hand.
This moderate dry spell was in the aftermath of a mammoth season which saw her put up staggering numbers for the regular season SEC champions, including 22 homers and 71 runs batted in, while entering Sunday's play at the Tuscaloosa Regional with a .364 average.
But in the title game of the regional, the Lafayette, La. native defined herself as the epitome of clutch on the big stage, as her fifth-inning grand slam, along with a huge hit later by teammate and sophomore outfielder KB Sides, helped propel the host Crimson Tide to a wild 9-8 victory over Arizona State. She also later added a huge RBI single for good measure.
Patrick Murphy's Crimson Tide (55-7) collected its 40th consecutive victory in the NCAA Regionals, dating back to 2007, Sunday afternoon with another dramatic comeback triumph, advancing to next week's Super Regional which it will also host at Rhoads Stadium.
"I knew (Sun Devil starter Cielo Meza) didn't want to walk me, obviously, since the bases were loaded," said Hemphill of her base-clearing deep shot. "I was just looking for a strike to hit and lucky enough she left it pretty fat right there and I knew I had to hit it in the air to score at least one and lucky enough it went over."
No doubt it was a sweet sight for the Tide slugger to finally see a fat pitch coming her way for a change.
"I wouldn't say it has been frustration," said Hemphill of the dry spell. "I'm doing my job and getting on and I didn't think I was hitting my best this week, so I just wanted to keep it simple in the box."
The Sun Devils (35-20) broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the third inning against Alabama starter Sarah Cornell, the 2019 Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year.
Morgan Howe led off with a single and then Skylar McCarty singled although Howe would be thrown out attempting to steal second by senior catcher Reagan Dykes. Shortstop Jade Gortarez, however, then stepped in and cranked a two-run homer over the left field wall to put Arizona State up 2-0.
Howe continued her good work at the plate in the bottom of the fourth.
After Kiara Kennedy and DeNae Chatman walked, Howe delivered a three-run bomb over the right field wall to build the Sun Devil advantage to 5-0. Cornell was replaced in the circle by Krystal Goodman following Howe's deep shot.
"I knew we weren't going to go down without a fight," said Hemphill. "I knew we would score at least one or two (to get back into the contest), and no one for one second thought we were going to lose this game. We've been in this situation before and we just had to keep this energy and that fight in us the whole game and come out on top."
In the top of the fifth, the Crimson Tide used a little power of its own to get its first run of the game as leftfielder Merris Schroder hit a solo homer over the right field wall to cut the Sun Devil lead to 5-1.
But Alabama was not finished in the inning.
After consecutive singles by Elissa Brown and Sides, and then a walk by Kaylee Tow which loaded the bases, Hemphill stepped up and crushed the second pitch she saw from Meza over the center field wall. This tied the score at 5-5 and caused a deafening roar from those fans wearing crimson and white.
"I thought I was going to pass out when Bailey hit the grand slam," said Murphy. "Just a great game for our fans, for TV and for (the media on hand). Just a hell of a championship game."
Meza was replaced in the circle by Samantha Mejia after the bases loaded bomb, and the Tide was able to get two more runners on via a walk to Skylar Wallace and a double by Dykes. The Tide was unable to do any more damage, but it was now a brand new contest in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama continued to bat around in the top of the sixth, plating three runs on three hits to build an 8-5 advantage.
Brown walked and then Sides singled to center. Tow then hit an RBI single to left to give the Tide its first lead of the game. Hemphill continued her monster day with an RBI single to left and the lead was now 7-5.
The final run came across when Wallace was retired on a fielder's choice play.
In the bottom of the sixth, Arizona State's Alli Tatnall led off the inning with a walk, but was quickly erased on a nice double play by Alabama third baseman Maddie Morgan. Montana Fouts was brought in to replace Goodman in the circle after this.
Arizona State loaded the bases against her with two walks and a hit batsman, and the Sun Devils scored two runs when Jade Gortarez reached on a Crimson Tide error. Another run came in on a single by Maddi Hackbarth. This slugfest was now tied at 8-8.
Sides delivered in a big way in the top of the seventh, as after walks by Schroder and Brown, she hit an RBI single to drive in Schroder and put the Crimson Tide on top again 9-8.
"Really just with two strikes I was swinging hard and was seeing a good pitch, nothing above or up, and they left me a pretty big hole over there," said Sides.
The bottom of the seventh was greeted by a steady rain shower, and the game was delayed following a single by Yannira Acuna of the Sun Devils to lead off the frame.
Play resumed shortly afterward, and Fouts was able to retire Chatman on a pop out and Loomis on a fly to center before Howe singled. McCarty lined out hard to Morgan, however, and for the second day in a row, the Crimson Tide was able to survive a roller coaster ride of a game against the Sun Devils to finally celebrate a regional title.
Fouts improved to 17-4 in picking up the win while Mejia took the loss and fell to 16-10.
Brown, Sides and Hemphill had three hits each for Alabama, with Brown, Sides, Tow and Schroder scoring two runs apiece for the Crimson Tide.
Howe led the Sun Devils with three hits, while Gortarez and Acuna had two each. Howe and Gortarez each had three RBIs.
"I have no idea where to start," said Murphy after the game. "I guess first, congrats to ASU on one hell of a season. I don't know how they have 20 losses but they were just a really good opponent and kudos to everybody, their kids, their coaches, their parents, their fans. That was an instant classic in my mind."
In terms of the phenomenal 40-game regional winning streak by the Crimson Tide program, Murphy said many people have contributed to it.
"I don't tell (the players) some of the good stuff, because I don't want them to freak out," he said. "It starts with our fans and they make (Rhoads Stadium) the toughest place to play in the postseason. The rain came, and some of them went up to take cover, but then as soon as it's gone they all come back. In most places everybody would have left period. The players are very resilient, and obviously you saw that today and like (Hemphill) said, it's a tradition that we're going to make this the toughest place to play in America in the postseason. It's got to be a record. I don't know anybody else that has that many wins in a row at home in regional play, I am really proud of it."
"I am at a loss for words right now and this was a tough one," said Arizona State coach Trisha Ford. "(Her players) gave everything they had. That's what we're about at ASU. We fight to the very end, and from a life perspective, these ladies are going to be successful on and off the field. I couldn't be more proud of them. Alabama is a hell of a team and obviously they're the regular season SEC champions and that's a good ball club over there. We left everything on the field."