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June 2, 2012OKLAHOMA CITY | Amanda Locke was close.
Patrick Murphy could feel it.
The University of Alabama softball team's fifth-year senior slugger came into Friday night's game against defending national champion Arizona State at the Women's College World Series with 17 home runs, but was hitless in her last 17 at-bats.
She drew a walk and beat out an infield hit to break out of the slump, but big hitters like Locke do things in big ways.
Locke couldn't have picked a bigger way to do it than with Friday's monstrous home run to lift the Crimson Tide to a 2-1 victory that leaves UA just one victory away from playing for the national championship.
Alabama (57-7) will have today off while top-seeded Cal, Tennessee and Oregon play it out for a spot in Sunday's semifinal round. The team that survives today's elimination rounds will have to beat UA twice, while Alabama will have to win just once to earn a spot in Monday's best-of-three championship series at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Alabama's head coach, Murphy, said after UA's opening-round victory that he was seeing signs that Locke was ready to break out, pointing to a near-homer into a fierce win in the Crimson Tide's opening victory over Tennessee.
"I think she's close to where she wants to be. She's very close," Murphy said Thursday. "She's had really good at-bats."
Locke came up in the top of the sixth with the game tied 1-1, worked the count full against Arizona State ace Dallas Escobedo, and unleashed the power that had been dormant since her last hit, which had come on May 12.
Alabama ace Jackie Traina, who carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and allowed just three hits with 11 strikeouts, took care of the rest.
Arizona State scored first, striking in the bottom of the fourth when Sam Parlich followed two walks with an RBI single to right for the Sun Devils' first hit of the night. ASU still had two runners on the base paths with no outs, but Traina didn't blink, coming back with two strikeouts and a groundout to keep Arizona State from adding to its lead.
Alabama answered, and in surprising fashion. Courtney Conley shocked the Arizona State defense, dropping a drag bunt and beating it out for an infield hit to lead off the fifth.
She moved to second on Kaila Braud's sacrifice bunt and scored on outfielder Jennifer Fenton's hard single through the right side of the infield, tying the game 1-1.
Then came Locke's big bomb.
It was only fitting that Alabama should run into Arizona State in such a crucial spot in the Crimson Tide's quest to win a national championship in its eighth trip to the World Series. The Sun Devils have popped up at important places in UA's postseason history, starting in 2000, when the Crimson Tide defeated Arizona State twice in Tempe to secure its first visit to Oklahoma City as part of the eight-team national championship field.
The Sun Devils bedeviled UA in a 2008 first-round game at the World Series when a fair-or-foul call on a hit that nicked Kelley Montalvo's glove along the third-base line went ASU's way to decide the game. Alabama battled through the loser's bracket to make it to the semifinal for the first time, but ran into Arizona State again and was eliminated.
Just a year later, Alabama got its revenge on the Sun Devils when Lunceford hit a now-legendary pinch-hit grand slam as a freshman to eliminate the defending national champions.
That history of postseason drama was the backdrop to Friday's showdown, and the tension built pitch by pitch and inning by inning.
Alabama blew every opportunity to seize the momentum Traina kept ASU handcuffed in the early going.
Locke drew a one-out walk in the second inning and moved to third base on a one-out single to right field by Jazlyn Lunceford, but Escobedo was able to get a pop-up for out three.
Infield singles by outfielders Braud and Fenton with one out in the third had UA in business in the third and shortstop Kaila Hunt missed hitting her 21st home run of the year by about a foot, but ASU outfielder Elizabeth Caporuscio caught it at the wall. The runners tagged and advanced, giving Cassie Reilly-Boccia a game-breaking opportunity with two outs, but she grounded out to the pitcher.
Locke beat out an infield single to lead off the fourth, and pinch runner Keima Davis moved to second on Traina's sacrifice bunt, but Escobedo coaxed a fly ball and got a strikeout to leave the runner stranded.
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.