The Minnesota Golden Gophers softball team made things interesting in their NCAA Women’s College World Series opening game against the UCLA Bruins on Thursday, but just didn’t have enough firepower. The Bruins defeated the Gophers 7-2 on the strength of a pair of home runs and a typically outstanding pitching performance from two-time NCAA Player of the Year Rachel Garcia. The Gophers now will drop to the loser’s bracket where they will face the #3 seed Washington Huskies Saturday morning to avoid heading home.
Minnesota didn’t get any help in trying to stem any early nerves when they needed to wait an extra 45 minutes for the start of their game against UCLA. The first game between Washington and Arizona went into extra innings before Arizona won on a two-run home run in the 8th inning. Minnesota was the road team and led off, and with the exception of a Hope Brandner walk were set down easily by Garcia.
Amber Fiser was in the circle as usual for Minnesota, but unfortunately for the Gophers she was not the Fiser we have seen all season long. Whether it was nerves, or another reason Fiser struggled with her command, especially of her off-speed pitches and it hurt the Gophers. Fiser would walk a career high six batters, and the Bruins would make her pay for several of those walks.
UCLA would strike first in the bottom of the first inning, but it wouldn’t be due to a walk. Bruins lead-off batter Bubba Nickles took a Fiser fastball deep over the left field fence to put UCLA up 1-0 after one batter. Fiser would get the next three Bruins in order, but the tone was set.
The Gophers went down in order in the top of the second, and the Bruins went to work on Fiser in the bottom of the inning. A pair of singles and a walk loaded the bases with no outs. Fiser then walked in a run on four straight balls to make it 2-0 UCLA and leave the bases loaded with zero outs. It looked like the Gophers could be in deep trouble, but once again Minnesota got out of the inning without any further damage after a pair of groundouts and a strikeout.
Minnesota would get their first hit in the top of the third, but even that symbolized how the game went for the Gophers. Makenna Partain ripped one to the gap in left center in what should have been an easy double, bur she tripped rounding first base and had to settle for a single. It wouldn’t matter as Maddie Houlihan grounded out to end the inning. UCLA would add a third run in the bottom of the inning after another lead-off walk by Fiser. Aaliyah Jordan would advance from first to third on a single by Garcia and then score on a sac fly by Taylor Pack to make it 3-0 after three innings.
Minnesota still could not get anything going on offense in the middle innings, but at least neither could the Bruins. The game went to the sixth inning with the Bruins still ahead 3-0 before the Gophers finally conjured up some offense. Houlihan led off the inning with a single, and after a Brandner fly out would score on a hard hit double by Natalie DenHartog to cut the UCLA lead to 3-1. After a pop out for the second out, Super Regional hero Allie Arneson hit a single to left center to score DenHartog, but Arneson would be thrown out at second trying to stretch her hit ending the inning. Never-less, the Gophers had cut the UCLA lead to 3-2 and appeared to have the momentum back.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, it didn’t last long. UCLA found success getting to Fiser once again in the bottom of the inning. After a pop out for the first out, UCLA’s next two batters singled. Nickles came up and hit a shot to second, but Partain could not come up with the ball and was charged with an error as one Bruin scored to make it 4-2. After a strikeout by Fiser it appeared that Minnesota was going to get out of the inning with limited damage once more, but that thought was erased when Jordan took Fiser deep for a three-run home run to effectively but the game on ice. After another single and a walk, Fiser was yanked and Sydney Smith came in and got a groundout to get Minnesota out of the inning.
The Gophers would go down in order once more in the top of the 7th, and the Bruins would advance in the winner’s bracket with a 7-2 win. They will face Pac-12 rival Arizona Friday evening.
The Gophers will fall to the loser’s bracket and will face Washington who lost to Arizona 3-1 in eight innings on Thursday. That game will be played at 11AM on Saturday, and whichever team wins will come back and play again at 6PM. The loser’s season is over.
The Gophers no doubt will bring Fiser back and hope that she can regain her form from the previous NCAA tournament games. Meanwhile, it won’t be any easier for the Gopher offense as Washington has one of the best 1-2 punches of a pitching staff in the country and the Gophers will most likely see sophomore Gabbie Plain who went 23-2 with a 1.14 ERA and 229 strikeouts in 172.2 innings. The Husky offense will not be as dangerous as UCLA’s was, but they still have All-American shortstop Sis Bates who hit.385 on the season and is one of if not the best defensive shortstops in the country. Washington also has Morganne Flores who has 22 home runs on the season.
Hopefully Minnesota can remember what got them to this point and channel it on Saturday to avoid heading home.