Friday, May 20, 2016

7th inning error dooms Bulldogs in disappointing NCAA tournament loss

Call it deja vu.

And a very bad case of deja vu, at that.

Fresno State returned to the site of a heartbreaking 2010 loss in NCAA Tournament play Friday, opening the 2016 tourney at UCLA's Easton Stadium.  Back in 2010, the Bulldogs were tied 2-2 with UCLA with two outs in the sixth inning, until a costly error enabled the Bruins to go on for a regional title-clinching win.

Today, it was an opening-round NCAA game in the same Easton Stadium, but this time against Cal State Fullerton, and again another Fresno State error late in the game proved costly.  Kierra Willis, the Mountain West Player of the Year, made a wild throw from left field with one out in the seventh inning, allowing the Titans to break a tie and score the eventual game-winning run in a 6-4 win over the Bulldogs.

The game was tied 4-4 in the seventh when Fresno State starting pitcher Jill Compton, who labored most of the afternoon, allowed the first two Fullerton batters of the inning (Samantha Vandiver and Missy Taukeiaho) to reach on singles.  Following a pop up that failed to advance the runners, Melissa Sechrest lined a single to Willis in left that looked like it was going to load the bases.

As the Titans' base runners advanced to second and third base -- and decided to stay there -- on Sechrest's single to load them up, Willis made an unnecessary and ill-advised attempt to throw home from shallow left field.  It was a wild throw that went all the way to the screen, overthrowing everyone, and allowing the Fullerton base runner to waltz home from third for a 5-4 lead.  A groundout followed, scoring another run, and it was 6-4 in favor of the Titans just like that.

It was all Fullerton would need, and that would be the ball game.

In the bottom of the seventh, Fresno State attempted to rally.  Bria Kennedy walked to lead off the frame, giving the Bulldogs some hope, with their two through four hitters coming to bat.  Malia Rivers struck out before Willis just missed tying the game on a deep fly ball to the wall in center field.  Two pitches later, Alyssa Villalpando grounded out to end it, sending the Titans to the winner's bracket.

For Fresno State, it was another in a series of humbling postseason losses.  For the first time in program history, the Bulldogs have lost five consecutive NCAA Tournament games, and have not won an NCAA postseason softball game in exactly five years.  For a program with such storied tradition and over 90 postseason softball wins to its credit, it's a big blow.  The Bulldogs' last win in NCAA Tournament play came  May 20, 2011, in a 1-0 victory over Nebraska during Margie Wright's next-to-last season at the helm of the Bulldogs.  They've committed seven errors in their last four combined NCAA Tournament losses.

Before their current string of five years without an NCAA Tournament victory, the Bulldogs had never gone more than a single season without an NCAA win from 1982 to 2011.  Prior to last year, 1986 was the lone season -- in 31 different trips to the NCAA tourney -- where Fresno State did not win a game.

Fresno State (41-11-1), which went 0-2 in an NCAA regional just one time in 27 tournament appearances under Wright, now must win an elimination game vs. Cal State Bakersfield Saturday at 3 p.m. to avoid going 0-2 in NCAA tourney play for the second straight year under head coach Trisha Ford.  Fullerton (44-14) advances to a noon winner's bracket semifinal vs. host UCLA.

UCLA blanked Cal State Bakersfield 7-0 in the other regional game played Friday in Los Angeles.  In that one, Bruins pitcher Johanna Grauer tossed a no-hitter over the Roadrunners and narrowly missed a perfect game.  After retiring the first 20 Bakersfield batters of the game, Grauer issued a walk with two outs in the seventh inning.  CSUB will enter Saturday's elimination game with Fresno State with a 16-33 overall record.  Against common opponents this season, the Bulldogs are 11-2, while the Roadrunners are 4-11.

Willis' seventh inning error may have been the key in this one, but she was the main reason Fresno State was even in this game to begin with.  With Compton struggling with her command, and allowing the Titans to put runners in scoring position in every inning but two, it was Willis' 2-run home run in the third inning that gave the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead.  Willis accounted for Fresno State's only earned runs of the game, and it was one of just two extra-base hits for her team on the afternoon.

The home run by Willis was also the Bulldogs' only hit with a runner on base Friday.  It would turn out to be one of the more lackluster offensive games of the season for a team that hit a Mountain West-best .371 in conference play.  Fresno State was a paltry 1-for-17 with runners on base in this one.

Cal State Fullerton, with some shoddy defense (three errors) and poor base running decisions, tried to keep Fresno State in the game.  And the Titans did, for the most part.

Compton allowed two hits, and also walked two, in the top of the first inning as Fullerton threatened from the start.  The Titans were unable to score in the first though, when catcher Paige Gumz made a nice throw to get a Fullerton base runner out on an attempted steal for the game's first out.  Compton was able to escape a bases-loaded jam in the opening frame with one of her two strikeouts on a 3-2 pitch.

The Bulldogs took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second.  Gumz doubled, and advanced to third on a Fullerton error as the ball was bobbled in the outfield.  Gumz would then score on a wild pitch from Titans starter Desiree Ybarra, the Big West Pitcher of the Year.

In the top of the third, Fullerton answered right back for a 2-1 lead as Compton issued a leadoff walk before giving up a 2-run homer to Taukeiaho.

Compton (now winless in three career NCAA Tournament starts) allowed the leadoff batter to reach base in five of seven innings -- four times with walks.  She walked the leadoff batter in the first, third, fourth and fifth innings, and the last three times, each of those runners ended up scoring.  In the fifth, after falling behind by a run, Fresno State tied it with some Titan errors.  Bria Kennedy's single was the lone hit for the Bulldogs in the frame; Fullerton, though, committed two costly errors -- one on a bobbled grounder by Sydney Colenzo, and one on an errant throw by shortstop Shianne Brannan that allowed Fresno State to tie it.

In all, only two of the Bulldogs' runs in the game were earned.  No Fresno State player finished with more than one hit, as six players (Willis, Kennedy, Rivers, Villalpando, Gumz and freshman Morgan Howe all had one).  Lindsey Willmon, Fresno State's leading hitter at .371 entering the game, went 0-for-3, with all three at-bats coming with Bulldog runners on base.

It was Fresno State's second loss in row after having its nation-leading 23-game winning streak snapped.  Compton allowed eight hits, struck out two, and issued five walks.  Taukeiaho, Sechrest, and Courtney Rodriguez all had two hits for the Titans.  Fullerton freshman pitcher Sydney Golden allowed just two hits in 4 2/3 innings of relief to earn the victory in her first NCAA Tournament appearance.