FRESNO, Calif. — After tying the single-season team record with 48 wins with its dramatic 3-2 win over California on Saturday night, the Gophers softball team came into Sunday’s championship game with Fresno State hoping for another chance to knock off the third-ranked host.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, they had used up all of their chances.
A pair of errors by Shannon Beeler in Friday’s game with Fresno State led to both runs in a 2-1 loss. And an early error by Laura Peters in Sunday’s tournament finale gave the Bulldogs an early lead they eventually parlayed into a 6-0 win.
Heading into Friday’s tourney opener, Minnesota was considered a big underdog by the 2,000 hometown fans. But Minnesota hung close despite allowing the two unearned runs in the third inning. Beeler somewhat redeemed herself later with a controversial home run in the seventh down the left field line.
Many of the Fresno faithful, as well as Bulldogs coach Margie Wright, thought the ball was foul. But Beeler said otherwise.
“It was fair,” she said. “It wrapped right around the foul pole.”
All-American Bulldogs pitcher Amanda Scott also agreed the ball was fair and added that she was surprised at how the Gophers played her team.
“We played some great defense once again tonight,” Scott said. “I didn’t have my best stuff, but we got them to fly out and ground out in the situations we needed to.”
Scott, who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament, was out of character in issuing five walks to the Gophers. But Minnesota failed to take advantage of the gift base runners, leaving 10 stranded in all.
Sophomore outfielder Kate Schwartz, who was filling in for the injured Morgan Holden (broken wrist), left seven runners on base herself, including bases-loaded situations in the second and sixth innings. But her battle with Scott in the sixth was a crucial point in a close game, as she battled with the All-American, fouling off three pitches, including a line shot down the left field line that landed about three inches foul.
But Scott got Schwartz to fly out to left on the next pitch to end the threat.
“Kate Schwartz had a great at-bat,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “It’s a game of inches, and three more inches on the left field line and we’re up 3-2 and we’re slapping hands in the dugout.”
The Bulldogs held on, however, forcing Minnesota into the loser’s bracket and a match-up with second-seeded Cal State-Northridge, which lost to California 3-1 earlier Friday.
Against Cal State-Northridge, the Gophers were able to get their lead-off hitter on in five of six innings, as Peters went 3-for-4 and No. 2 hitter Steph Midthun went 2-for-4. In the bottom of the fourth, after Peters and Midthun led off with singles, both players advanced on a double steal. Shannon Beeler was intentionally walked to load the bases, bringing Amber Hegland to the plate.
The senior came through, singling to center field to score Midthun and Peters. Designated player Erin Mooney, who went 5-for-10 on the weekend and was named to the all-tournament team along with Midthun and pitcher Steph Klaviter, also had an RBI single in the inning, as did first baseman Dana Ballard.
The four-run inning provided the only scoring in the game, and Klaviter gave up three hits in the complete-game shutout.
Minnesota then had to turn around and play California, which lost to Fresno State 6-3 earlier in the day. California pitcher Holly Yost baffled the Gophers hitters early and often, hurling a no-hitter through five and two-thirds innings. But Yost started to get wild in the bottom of the sixth when she hit Peters, bringing Midthun to the plate with a chance to break up the no-hitter.
She did just that with an infield single. Beeler was again intentionally walked to load the bases, bringing Hegland to the plate. She drew a walk to drive in the first run of the game. Mooney followed Hegland with a single to drive in Midthun, and Michelle Bennett drew a bases-loaded walk, as the Gophers went into the final inning with a 3-0 lead.
California came back with two runs in the top of the seventh, but Klaviter came in and retired the final batter with the bases loaded to pick up her third save of the year.
“We got some key hits from the bottom part of the lineup,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “I knew we were going to win that game. I really did.”
But Gophers pitcher Wendy Logue wasn’t quite as relaxed as her coach claimed to be.
“I wanted to make it a little stressful,” she joked. “But it was awesome. It was probably one of the most important games I’ve ever pitched in.”
Yost, who was also named to the all-tournament team, said she was not only disappointed with losing the game, but the no-hitter as well.
“It’s pretty frustrating because it was just a mental letdown,” she said. “But Minnesota came through when they needed to. They never gave in.”
With the back-to-back wins, the Gophers moved on to Sunday’s rematch with the Bulldogs needing to win twice to take the tourney title.
But after Peters’ error put Minnesota in an early hole, Bennett misjudged a line drive to left field off the bat of catcher Carolyn Wilson, and the floodgates opened. The Bulldogs went on to score four runs in the inning, putting the game out of reach.
The Gophers were hanging their heads for the rest of the game, and Scott worked quickly, giving up only three hits in the 6-0 blanking.
“We played great all weekend, and we came up a little short today,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “But I’m very proud of their effort, and I’m proud of how far they went this season.”
Note: The second-place finish in the regional was the best ever for the Gophers, and it improved their overall regional record to 3-8 in four appearances.