Thursday, May 14, 2015

Compton tosses 3-hitter but Bulldogs fall in NCAA opener

The opening game of the 2015 NCAA Tournament turned out to be exactly what everyone envisioned -- a pitcher's duel between a pair of conference Pitchers of the Year.  And just before Thursday's game, they both learned they were First Team NFCA All-Region selections too.

Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton went toe-to-toe with Summit League Pitcher of the Year Krista Menke in a first-round NCAA matchup that pitted the All-Pacific Region pick Compton against the All-Midwest Region selection in Menke.

In the end, it was Menke and her No. 24/25-ranked North Dakota State Bison who came out on top 4-0 over Fresno State in a game that featured only five hits, and none for extra bases.  Compton allowed just three singles in the game, including one that was a soft infield bloop that tipped off her glove and landed about five feet behind the pitching circle.

But Fresno State could never find any rhythm against Menke, an elite pitcher with Top 25 victories this season against the likes of Minnesota, South Alabama and Washington all on the road.  The Bulldogs got two singles from Michelle Solomon, one in the fourth and one in the sixth, but that was it.  Menke struck out 10 and Fresno State had two runners aboard just once in the game.

In the fourth, Solomon singled to left with one out and Kierra Willis walked.  But Menke got a quick, one-pitch out on a fly ball by Paige Gumz and then struck out Alyssa Villalpando.  In the sixth, Solomon singled with one out again, but Willis struck out and Gumz flew out.

While Compton wasn't hit hard, her control was an issue.  In her first NCAA Tournament game (and the Bulldogs' first as a team since 2011), she worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the first, but ran into trouble in the second.  Compton allowed a pair of walks to begin the frame, and a sacrifice moved the runners to second and third.  Uncharacteristically, Compton walked both of the next two batters she faced, forcing in a run and giving NDSU the only run it would need.  With the bases still loaded, she got consecutive strikeouts to escape further damage, but the Bison carried a 1-0 lead to the third inning despite not having a hit.

In the third, Bulldog second baseman Malia Rivers led off the inning by committing one of her two errors in the game.  It would be costly, and it appeared to rattle Compton.  After a sacrifice advanced the base runner, Compton allowed another walk, followed by NDSU's first hit of the game -- a run-scoring single off the bat of Amanda Grable.  An ill-advised decision to get the runner out at home allowed Grable to advance to second, and the Bulldogs paid the price.

Jackie Stifter singled through the right side, plating two more runs and it was 4-0.  Against Menke, that probably looked like 400-0.  Fresno State hadn't seen a pitcher of that caliber since early March at the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton and it showed.  The Bulldogs struck out 10 times as Menke improved to 33-4 on the season with 372 strikeouts (second-best in the nation).  Trisha Ford's squad watched its 11-game winning streak come to an end.

The Bulldogs had one other scoring chance in the fifth.  Bria Kennedy opened the frame by working an 8-pitch at-bat for a walk that gave Fresno State some hope.  It evaporated quickly as the next three Bulldogs (Chase LeeHong, Whitney Smith and Brenna Moss) were retired on a total of six pitches.  LeeHong botched a sacrifice play with a soft bunt in the air, Smith popped up on the first pitch she saw, and Moss completed an 0-for-3 day with a quick pop-up.

Fresno State now is in must-win mode.  The Bulldogs will face BYU on Friday at 2 pm in Eugene in the first elimination game of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.  The Cougars were run-ruled 8-0 in six innings by top-seeded Oregon Thursday in a game where Ducks pitcher Cheridan Hawkins tossed a 1-hitter.  A win in Friday's 2 pm game would advance Fresno State to a 5 pm game Friday against the loser of tomorrow's opening contest (11 am) pitting Oregon and North Dakota State.

The Bulldogs must defeat BYU Friday to avoid going 0-2 in an NCAA regional for the first time in 29 years.  In their 30 previous NCAA Tournament appearances, the Bulldogs have won at least one game in postseason play every year except 1986.