Friday, April 7, 2017

First-place Aggies sweep struggling Bulldogs, who tumble to 6th place

No one expected Fresno State to fall this far.  And certainly not this fast.

In a season in which the Bulldogs began the year ranked in the Top 25 and predicted to win the Mountain West softball championship, Fresno State continued to fall deeper towards the conference cellar, losing a doubleheader at Utah State Friday by 1-0 and 7-4 scores.

It's the Aggies who now hold sole possession of first place in the Mountain West standings, and have taken a 2-game lead over the rest of the conference.  For first-year head coach Linda Garza and Fresno State, it's an entirely different story.

The Bulldogs have now lost four consecutive conference games for the first time in school history.  It had never happened in Mountain West play, nor any conference in which the Bulldogs ever were affiliated in the sport of softball.  Fresno State must defeat Utah State in game three of the series (either Saturday or Sunday, weather permitting) to avoid tying the all-time school record for consecutive losses in the sport of softball -- five.

For a program that has never finished below third place in the conference standings in its storied softball history, the Bulldogs currently find themselves alone in sixth place in the Mountain West standings.  This marks the first time a Fresno State softball team has been below .500 in conference play 10 or more games into league play.  At 5-6 overall (.455 winning percentage), the 'Dogs are well below their worst conference mark in school  history (14-10, .583).

Friday, Utah State freshman sensation Kellie White was the difference, winning both games.  White threw a 2-hit shutout in the opener and then picked up the win in relief in the nightcap as the Aggies rallied from a 4-0 deficit to win 7-4.

In game one, White and Fresno State's Kamalani Dung were both outstanding, and Dung again had the misfortune of pitching well, but being the tough-luck loser.  The Bulldogs blew their best scoring opportunity in the top of the first inning in game one, loading the bases with one out, before White induced the leading Bulldog hitter -- sophomore Morgan Howe -- to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Both Dung and White would take 2-hit shutouts into the seventh.  While Fresno State left a base runner stranded in the top of the seventh, USU scored the game's lone run on a walk-off solo homer by Sarina Jaramillo.  It was the first hit allowed by Dung since the game's second inning.

In game two, the Bulldogs appeared to have the game in hand after Howe hit a 2-run home run and Kierra Willis launched a solo shot against Aggies starter April Brown.  That was enough for USU coach Steve Johnson to pull Brown and replace her with White in the circle. After Vanessa Hernandez stole home, Fresno State was in front 4-0 and Bulldog starting pitcher Savannah McHellon was cruising with a no-hitter intact in the fourth inning.

Paxton Provost would break up McHellon's no-hit bid with a one-out double in the bottom of the fourth, and Jaramillo followed with a 2-run home run to cut the Bulldog lead to 4-2.  It would remain that way until the bottom of the sixth when Provost hit an RBI single to make it a 1-run game.  A walk to Jaramillo came just before freshman Riley Plogger hit a 3-run homer to left on a cool, windy day in Logan.  That would make it 6-4 USU, and McHellon was pulled.  Fresno State freshman reliever Samantha Mejia then gave up a solo homer to designated player Bailee Trapp almost immediately upon entering, setting up the game's final margin.

It guaranteed Utah State's first series win against Fresno State in a quarter century.  The last time the Aggies beat the 'Dogs in a series was 1992.  In fact, the Bulldogs have long dominated the series with USU, winning 27 of the last 28 meetings entering play Friday.

As Friday came to a close, Fresno State is wondering how things could fall apart so quickly.  The Bulldogs held sole possession of first place in the MW two weeks ago, but have gone a very uncharacteristic 1-5 in conference play since then.

Both teams finished the afternoon with nine hits apiece, but for the Bulldogs it was more of the same.  For the past few weeks, Fresno State has been inconsistent at the plate, with an inability to bring runners home.  The Bulldogs were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position in game one, and 2-for-14 with runners on base in the nightcap.

Elsewhere Friday, Colorado State defeated San Jose State 5-4, Boise State beat UNLV 5-1, and Nevada run-ruled New Mexico 10-2 in six innings.