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June 4, 2012OKLAHOMA CITY | The University of Alabama softball team played uphill all night Monday before the Oklahoma Sooners pushed the Crimson Tide down.
Now the question is how quickly Alabama can get back up.
Oklahoma stranded eight runners, five in scoring position, in the first four innings of the opening game of the NCAA Championship Series before finally bringing those runners home to take a 4-1 victory in front of a crowd of more than 8,000 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
The Crimson Tide must win tonight's second game and then win again Wednesday to capture the national championship, while Oklahoma sits one victory away from the title.
Alabama (58-8) took a beating in a defeat that could have been a lot worse, with Oklahoma pounding out 11 hits and twice leaving the bases loaded, but UA coach Patrick Murphy challenged his players as soon as the final out was recorded.
"We've been here before," Murphy told his team, then asked them for examples.
Players pointed to situations earlier this season when Alabama dropped the opening game of three-game series against Florida and Georgia before storming back to win the next two, and to a loss to Stanford in last year's super regional opener, where the Crimson Tide again rallied to win twice.
"It's the same situation," Murphy said. "We lost the first game, but that's why you play two-out-of-three. We came back all three times and won the series. I think the SEC prepares you for this, because every weekend is two-out-of-three.
"You lose the first one, you've go to learn how to bounce back and battle back."
Oklahoma had runners on first and second in the first inning, on second and third in the second inning, on first base in the third inning and had the bases loaded in the fourth, only to go away scoreless each time.
By that point, OU had reached Alabama ace Jackie Traina for seven hits and drawn two walks.
"I just wasn't putting it where I needed to put it," Traina said.
But after holding off so many Oklahoma chances and finding itself in a scoreless game in the bottom of the fourth inning, Alabama plated the game's first run. Traina singled to lead off, and Cassie Reilly-Boccia was hit by a pitch. A wild pitch by Sooner ace pitcher Keilani Ricketts moved the runners to second and third, and catcher Kendall Dawson lifted a sacrifice fly to right field. Traina tagged up and scored to put Alabama ahead 1-0.
Advantage Alabama? Oklahoma didn't think so.
"When you score on us, we want to score right back," Oklahoma coach Patti Gasso said, "and we did that in a fine fashion.
"This team is just so confident right now. You can feel it."
Oklahoma scored two runs in the top of the fifth on a sacrifice fly by Jessica Shults and a groundout with a runner on third, but again the Sooners left the bases loaded.
They took advantage of an error in the sixth and brought home runs on an RBI single from Shults and on a sacrifice bunt with Ricketts coming home from third, making it 4-1.
"We had the lead there in the bottom of the fourth and I kept saying to myself, Jackie's going to get on a roll," Murphy said. "They just had really good at-bats the next two innings and she left some pitches high. They capitalized."
While Oklahoma had its way with Traina (40-3), tallying 11 hits and drawing four walks, Alabama never seemed to get a handle on Ricketts (37-7), who scattered five hits and struck out 12.
Any chance of coming back to sweep the next two games depends in large part on Alabama's ability to beat a pitcher who has 52 strikeouts in four outings at the Women's College World Series.
There were some signs from Alabama's offense, with outfielder Jennifer Fenton going 2-for-4, Traina going 1-for-2 with a walk and Dawson adding a late hit to her sacrifice fly.
"She's an excellent pitcher," Reilly-Boccia said, "and what makes her very effective is she's from the left side and she throws very hard with a lot of movement, and that's not something you see every day. It takes an adjustment period.
"I thought we had much better at-bats toward the end of the game than we did at the beginning of the game, and I think that momentum will definitely carry."
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.