Saturday, May 20, 2017

NCAA regionals: Bulldog bats silent vs. Michigan; SJSU loses twice


It's fitting that the ESPN cameras Saturday night spent a lot of time focusing on Fresno State fans eating giant donuts at Husky Stadium in the NCAA Seattle Regional.

The Bulldogs were putting up giant donuts, er, zeroes, of their own on the scoreboard.  Fresno State was no match for the second straight night against Michigan All-American pitcher Megan Betsa, the nation's leader in strikeouts.  She became the first player in the country this season to cross the 400-strikeout barrier during Saturday's game.

Fresno State kept swinging and missing, and missing, and missing some more, as Betsa no-hit the Bulldogs and eliminated them from NCAA Tournament play.  After allowing a 1-out double in the first inning of Friday night's regional opener against Fresno State, Betsa threw 13 2/3 consecutive hitless innings versus the Bulldogs.  It included a staggering 26 strikeouts.

A night after striking out 13 Fresno State batters, Betsa struck out 13 more Saturday in a 4-0 win for the nation's 18th-ranked Wolverines.  Not only did no Bulldog get a hit in the game, few even made contact, as Vanessa Hernandez was the lone player not to strike out.  Betsa's mastery was most evident against the heart of the Fresno State lineup for the second game in a row.  The Bulldogs' three thru five hitters in the lineup (Morgan Howe, Lindsey Willmon and Savannah McHellon) combined to strike out 17 times in 18 at-bats against her in the two games.  Willmon and McHellon struck out in all 12 of their combined at-bats against Betsa in the NCAA Tournament.

Howe was the only one of those three to make contact in the game, fouling out to third base in the bottom of the seventh.

Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Kamalani Dung finally ran out of gas after a remarkable run.  Dung started her 12th consecutive game, including her second of the day, and third in less than 24 hours.  After throwing every pitch of her team's last 11 games, the sophomore was finally lifted in the fourth inning after a leadoff walk and her team down 4-0.  Freshman Samantha Mejia went the rest of the way, holding Michigan scoreless and potentially setting the stage for her 2018 season.

Coach Linda Garza's offseason mission is clear:  find some additional pitchers who can take some of the pressure off Dung.  The Bulldogs' woefully thin pitching staff was exposed this season; and even with the Mountain West's top pitcher, Fresno State's odds of advancing deep in the postseason weren't great when Dung was the only option in the circle.  Over the Bulldogs' final 25 games of the season -- a span that began in late March -- Dung was the only pitcher on Garza's squad to win a game.

In the end, the Bulldogs were a disappointment by normal Fresno State softball standards, despite reaching a 33rd NCAA tourney.  Garza's team finished just a half-game ahead of the worst conference record in school history, and set or tied some dubious records along the way.  The 'Dogs tied the school's single-game record for errors (8) versus Idaho State, had the longest losing streak in conference play (4) ever for a Bulldog softball team, and suffered the worst 11-game stretch in school history, going 2-9 at one point in April.  After being picked to win the MW title in the preseason coaches poll, Fresno State finished tied for third, tying its lowest conference finish in school history.  It comes with a caveat:  most schools would love to have a 3rd place finish represent their worst-ever league mark, so it's all relative.

After that rough April, the Bulldogs were playing their best ball of the season in May and finished the year winning 9 of their final 12 games.

In the other Mountain West-involved NCAA game Saturday night, San Jose State was shut out 1-0 by Cal State Fullerton in an elimination game.  Katelyn Linford, who entered in relief of starter Colette Riggs, gave up three hits in the seventh inning as the Titans broke the tie and held on for the win.  SJSU was run-ruled 10-2 by UCLA earlier in the day, and ended the season by going 1-4 in its final five games.

For the Spartans, the 2017 season has to be considered an overwhelming success.  Not only did San Jose State win its first Mountain West regular-season title, but it did it while essentially playing every game on the road.  No longer with a home stadium to play in, SJSU played and practiced at a mishmash of facilities, hosting most of its "home" games at a local junior college field.  SJSU won its season series 2-1 at Fresno State, and dashed Utah State's title hopes in a major way, derailing the then-first place Aggies' NCAA Tournament dreams with a season-ending, 3-game sweep.