SALT LAKE CITY — Well, more BYU-Utah competitive drama took center stage Friday at the NCAA Softball Regional at Dumke Family Stadium on the Utah campus, just like you knew it would.
Sixteenth-ranked Utah rallied with two timely runs on two huge hits in the bottom of the seventh to beat No. 21 BYU 3-2. You couldn’t script it any better in this rivalry. BYU leads, increases a 1-0 lead to 2-1 and in the seventh with last ups, Utah answers with two runs.
Something about these two universities. When they tangle, it’s a movie set; somebody dish out the well-worn script. Earlier this year BYU defeated Utah in Provo by — you got it — one run, 4-3.
Bridget Castro and pinch hitter Hailey Hilburn got solid bat density on two of BYU ace McKenna Bull’s first three pitches in the seventh to score Castro and Ute pinch runner Aubrey Peterson. The win kept Utah in the championship bracket. The loss forced BYU to play a Friday night game to earn the right to play again on Saturday.
“I thought we’d won the game, to tell you the truth,” said BYU coach Gordon Eakin, whose 45-12 Cougars never trailed in the game until Peterson ran across the plate on a hard-hit single to short center by Hilburn.
“This wasn’t lost in the seventh,” said Eakin of the dramatic finish. “ We lost this by leaving 11 runners on base earlier in the game.”
Eakin credited Utah and coach Amy Hogue for the late comeback, for having a club that never quit and found the right formula at the end.
But he was disappointed and felts like this was one that got away. You leave 11 runners stranded with a batting lineup that downright massacred WCC pitchers in the regular season to the tune of seven of 15 games called on the mercy-run rule? Well, you get the idea.
Credit goes to Utah starter Miranda Viramontes and reliever Katie Donovan, who came in late in the fourth inning and didn’t allow BYU a hit the remainder of the game. It was Donovan’s 17th win.
That, in a nutshell, was a Pac 12 effort. Hogue said BYU’s 11 runners left on base felt like 38.
With the two hits, a long right-field punch by Castro and the game-winning single in front of BYU center fielder Brooke Vander Heide in the seventh, Utah outhit BYU 8-7. BYU left 11 on base compared to Utah’s 3.
“We didn’t feel that much pressure,” said Hogue. “In our league, every weekend is like playing in an NCAA Regional. And we have to focus every game.”
Hogue’s mantra has been to have fun and that leads to wins. “I tell our seniors you win one and you have two games left. Win one and get two.”
To beat BYU, Utah had to find a way to get to the most successful, record-breaking Cougar pitcher who ever played in Provo. Bull holds nearly every record BYU can find in its book. Bull went six innings in Thursday's win over Mississippi State. She went the distance against Utah, and the loss gives Bull a 30-6 record for the season.
“I don’t know if she was getting the ball high or not, but our hitters knew from experience they had to be very aggressive against her or we’d get popups like we did in that loss in Provo.”
Castro ended up being the batter who lassoed Bull. In addition to her seventh-inning heroics, earlier in the game she doubled off the fence to score Anissa Urtez and even the score at 1-1.
BYU’s Ashley Thompson found herself in a unique scenario in the third and fifth innings. She had bases loaded and just one out. In the third, she hit a hard line drive that would have scored at least two but Castro made a stretch and caught the ball, then doubled up BYU’s first base runner Libby Suggs. Castro’s play retired the side and got Viramontes out of trouble.
In the top of the fifth, Thompson again faced Viramontes with the bases loaded. She singled to left field to score Laren Bell and give the Cougars a 2-1 lead.
“If Thompson had hit that line drive to Castro a little more left or right or higher, it would have been at least a double, maybe a triple,” said Eakins. “They say it’s a game of inches.”
And this one was a game of inches.
"The players want to flush this out of memory and get on to the next. But it's harder for the coach," said Eakins. "Our challenge will be mental, to get ready to play after losing this one. When you lose in a championship bracket, it becomes harder, I know that from experience."
Utah-BYU drama. Each has one win apiece against the other this season.
It doesn’t get any closer or thrilling than that.
Standard issue for this rivalry.