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June 3, 2012

UA softball advances to World Series title series

OKLAHOMA CITY | There was no heartbreak this time.

There wasn't even any drama.

There was only power, from both the University of Alabama's bats and its star pitcher.

The Crimson Tide, in its eighth trip to the Women's College World Series, finally broke through Sunday to earn a chance to play for the national championship, and it did so in convincing fashion.

Alabama hit three home runs and held the top-ranked, top-seeded California Golden Bears to just two hits in a 5-2 victory in front of more than 9,000 fans at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

UA will play Oklahoma in a best-of-three series for the national title, starting tonight.

Alabama played its way into the championship series not by bludgeoning Cal into submission, but by beating down the Bears in methodical fashion. The Crimson Tide never plated more than one run in a single inning, but instead scored one run in each of five consecutive innings.

"It was good to score in five consecutive innings," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "I'll take the one-an-inning. It's usually a bigger inning, but that was fine with me."

The first blow came from Traina, Alabama's youthful and overpowering ace, who does it from both the pitching circle and the plate. Traina launched a 2-2 pitch into the stands in left field in the second inning to give UA a 1-0 lead.

In the third inning, the Tide picked apart Cal's All-America pitcher, Jolene Henderson, with less lethal shots.

A Kayla Braud bunt single (coupled with a Cal throwing error), a single up the middle by Jennifer Fenton and a single to short right field by shortstop Kaila Hunt produced a run to put Alabama up 2-0.

Cal came back in the top of the fourth with Danielle Henderson's towering two-run home run to left field, just after a pitch Traina and Murphy thought should have been called a third strike, to tie the game.

It was the kind of thing that could have shaken a sophomore pitcher in the most important game of her collegiate career. Instead, as is almost always the case with Traina - herself a first-team All-American - it just made her better. She didn't allow another hit the rest of the way.

"I was just throwing good pitches, throwing my pitches, throwing pitches that I thought would get their batters out," Traina said.

After Cal tied the game, Alabama answered immediately in the bottom of the fourth inning. Jazlyn Lunceford drew a leadoff walk, Traina scorched a single through the right side of the infield and catcher Kendall Dawson punched an RBI single past shortstop to bring in Lunceford for a 3-2 lead.

The final blows to put Cal away were off the knockout variety, with Hunt hitting a solo home run, her 21st of the season, in the fifth and Lunceford following with a solo shot in the sixth.

Alabama put down Cal's final attempt to put together a rally. The Bears put runners on first and second with no outs on a wild pitch after a third strike call, then a walk.

Traina struck out the next batter and Dawson, the catcher who had allowed the ball to get away to put the first runner on base, took care of the next out with a snap throw to first to pick Danielle Henderson off.

"What set it up is I made a mistake," Dawson said, "and I wanted to get my team back in it. So I saw her getting off base, and I thought it would be a good time to try it."

One pitch later, Traina had another strikeout, Alabama was out of the inning and Cal (58-7) was done.

Traina (40-2) finished with six strikeouts and six walks on 122 pitches. Alabama roughed up Henderson (38-4) for nine hits.

Alabama had been eliminated in the semifinal round of the World Series twice in the last three years in heartbreaking fashion. Those disappointments were separated by another, when Hawaii ended UA's season with a walk-off home run two years ago to keep Alabama from getting to Oklahoma City.

This time, Alabama got to celebrate on the field and chant back and forth with fans who traveled to support them.

But the Crimson Tide knows there is still work to be done.

Oklahoma, the Big 12 champion, awaits, with a resume that is eerily similar to Alabama's. The Sooners have a .318 batting average with 98 home runs, while UA bats .316 with 97 homers. Alabama has the edge in speed, with 139 stolen bases to 65 for OU.

In the circle, Traina is a right-handed power pitcher who handled Tennessee, Arizona State and Cal to get to the final. Oklahoma counters with lefty Keilani Ricketts, who has struck out 40 batters and allowed just one run per game in World Series victories over South Florida, Cal and Arizona State.

"We've got power hitters, obviously, and great pitching," Hunt said of the championship series participants. "Jackie and Keilani, you have two of the best pitchers here in the tournament, and they're powerhouse pitchers. They throw it hard. So I think it's going to be a great matchup for sure."

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.


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