In its penultimate regular-season series, softball won two of three versus the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
North Texas (30-13, 15-6 Conference USA) came into Birmingham, Ala., a game ahead of Louisiana Tech University (35-17, 15-6) in the C-USA West Division standings. However, the Lady Techsters have tied the division up after a sweep of Middle Tennessee State University (19-31, 6-15 C-USA).
The Mean Green came back to beat Alabama-Birmingham (22-23, 10-10 C-USA) in Friday’s doubleheader, but came up short in Saturday afternoon’s series finale. Sophomore first baseman Kailey Gamble went 3-for-10 on the weekend, hitting her 14th home run and driving in the winning run in both of North Texas’ victories.
Game 1: North Texas 3, Alabama-Birmingham 2
Junior left-handed pitcher Ashley Peters led off the weekend for the Mean Green in the circle, pitching five innings, walking three, striking out three and allowing two runs (one earned) on two hits. Junior right-handed pitcher Sarah Cespedes took the circle for the Blazers, pitching 5.2 innings, striking out six, walking one and allowing two earned runs on eight hits. Both pitchers were scored a no-decision in the contest.
Freshman shortstop Cierra Simon singled to left in the top of the first with one out then stole second before Cespedes struck out the next two batters to strand Simon at second. Peters followed Cesepdes’ first inning performance by setting down the Alabama-Birmingham lineup in order to start the contest.
Both teams went hitless until the fourth inning when junior third baseman Saleen Donohoe singled on an infield roller to short and was followed by redshirt sophomore outfielder Molly Rainey laying down a bunt single. Cespedes denied North Texas a two-out rally as she forced senior third baseman Tayla Evans to fly out to end the inning.
Peters surrendered the game’s first run in the bottom half of the fourth after two walks and a fielder’s choice put two on for the Blazers. Sophomore outfielder Lilly Crowe reached on an error by Simon at short as she could not control a chopped ball and the runner at second, freshman outfielder Bella Wiggins, scored to give Alabama-Birmingham a 1-0 lead.
The Blazers added another in the bottom of the fifth after a quiet top half for the Mean Green. After freshman infielder Lindsey Smith singled to third, a sacrifice-bunt and single by junior outfielder Tyler Armistead put runners at the corners for freshman infielder Lauren Brock, who scored Smith from third with a grounder back to Peters.
Donohoe doubled to left-center with one out in the top of the sixth to begin a North Texas rally. Donohoe was pinch-ran for by freshman infielder Rylan Dooner, who advanced to third on Rainey’s second base hit of the game. Evans hit a sacrifice fly to score Dooner that was followed by a sophomore second baseman Mikayla Smith RBI single to tie the game. A former Mean Green pitcher, junior right-handed pitcher Bailey Tindell relieved Cespedes after the single and recorded the last out of the inning.
Peters’ day ended in the bottom of the sixth as freshman right-handed pitcher Skylar Savage took the circle, shutting down the Blazers in order. Sophomore outfielder Lexi Cobb walked to lead off the seventh and advanced to second on a Simon sacrifice bunt. She got to third on a sophomore outfielder Kalei Christensen groundout. With Cobb at third, Gamble hit an RBI single to give North Texas the lead for good.
Savage closed down Alabama-Birmingham in order to secure her 12th win on the season and give the Mean Green the first of two victories on the day.
Game 2: North Texas 5, Alabama Birmingham 4
Savage took the circle for North Texas in the second game Friday going five innings, striking out three, walking one and allowing four runs (one earned) on six hits. Junior right-handed pitcher Makenna Pierce started for the Blazers, pitching 3.1 innings, striking out one, walking one and allowing an earned run on four hits. Once again, both starters earned no decisions in the contest.
After a 1-2-3 inning in the top half of the first, Alabama-Birmingham put three across in the bottom half after the first two batters reached via error. Back-to-back RBI singles by Armistead and junior catcher Sierra Frazier put two runs across for the Blazers. Another run came across on a wild pitch before the inning ended.
A scoreless inning in the top of the second made way for Alabama-Birmingham to extend its lead to four on an RBI groundout by Brock after Smith reached via leadoff single. The score remained locked at 4-0 until the top of the fourth inning when Gamble hit her 14th home run of the season to bring the deficit down to three.
Donohoe’s fourth home run on the year in the top of the sixth cut the Blazers’ lead to two. Peters relieved Savage in the bottom of the sixth, striking out two on the way to shutting down the Blazers in order.
Freshman outfielder Sydney Ingle singled on a chopper to the pitcher, Tindell, who could not get the ball to first in time. Freshman shortstop Olivia Valbak checked in for Tindell, facing one batter, Cobb, who she walked. Valbak was pulled after one batter in favor of Cespedes. Simon bunted for a single to load the bases before Evans struck out and Gamble doubled to right to clear the bases and give the Mean Green the late 5-4 lead.
Peters set down the Blazers in four to win the series and her 16th game on the season.
Game 3: Alabama-Birmingham 2, North Texas 1
Peters got the start for North Texas in Saturday’s series finale, going six innings, striking out five and surrendering two runs on five hits. Valbak started for Alabama-Birmingham, going five innings, striking out three, walking two and giving up one run on four hits. Valbak scored the win in the contest while Peters took the loss.
Cobb led off the game with a double and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Evans then walked before Gamble flied out to center to score Cobb from third. With a 1-0 lead, Peters pitched a scoreless bottom of the first.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Blazers tied the game on a squeeze bunt by senior infielder Jolie Readeaux to score junior outfielder Faith Hegh. Smith doubled to left to give Alabama-Birmingham a one-run lead it would not relinquish.
Cespedes relieved Valbak in the top of the sixth, putting down North Texas in four. Peters gave the Mean Green a chance in the bottom half as she kept the Blazers off the board before the top of the seventh. Two flyouts and a groundout ended the game, denying North Texas a sweep.
Heading into the final series of the regular season, the Lady Techsters and North Texas are deadlocked for the C-USA overall lead and West lead, with the Mean Green holding the edge on win percentage. Louisiana Tech faces the University of Southern Mississippi (29-20, 9-12 C-USA) at home this weekend. Both the Mean Green and Lady Techsters hold a one-game lead over the two next closest teams in the conference.
“I’m disappointed that we couldn’t finish the series,” head coach Rodney DeLong said. “With where we sit in the standings, I have a hard time understanding why we were so flat today.”
Featured Image: Redshirt Sophomore Molly Rainey celebrates during a game on April 1, 2022. Photo by Kristian Freeman