THE ELEPHANT IS DEAD; GRIFFITHS WALK-OFF HOME RUN IN SEVENTH LEADS HOOSIERS OVER SPARTANS, 5-4
East Lansing, Mich. - April 28, 2001. It is a date that has taunted, haunted, and teased the last two Indiana softball squads for what has seemed like every hour of 728 consecutive days.
Forty-eight hours shy of two years ago, the Hoosiers defeated Illinois, in Bloomington, by the score of five-nil, in what amounted to the fourth and final check on the left side of the Big Ten Win/Loss ledger that season. Yet, until 3:04 Eastern Time today, it was that April afternoon that marked the last time an Indiana softball player had exited a softball field with a smile on her face -- at least a grin that was actually supposed to be there.
Today, with the weight of thirty-three consecutive conference losses jumping up and down on their collective shoulders -- setbacks that were sustained in ways imaginable and even not so -- the monkey, which had turned into a gorilla before morphing into an elephant, was finally struck with a deathblow to the spine in the manner of a seventh inning walk-off home run by sophomore Ashley Griffiths that pushed the Hoosiers past Michigan State, 5-4. Dumbo dropped like a ton of wrinkled gray flesh pushed off a 100-foot cliff.
"It came together," said first-year head coach Sara Hayes. "We've been bringing pieces but today we brought the whole pie. We kept hammering, had a lot of opportunities, and the difference today was that we came through at opportune times. It is encouraging that we did it in every phase of the game."
With one out in the seventh inning and the game tied at four, Griffiths, a sophomore second baseman, spanked a one-out, first-pitch, delivery from Michigan State's blonde mini-stud Jessica Beech (21-7) over the fence in left field to end the game. The solo shot was Griffiths' first home run of the season and the second of her career. The Dove Canyon, Calif., product was welcomed at home plate by a party that rivaled the gyrations of high school teachers after the final student had left the building on the last day of school.
"It was over the plate about waist high and as a first-pitch hitter I jumped on it," said Griffiths. "I thought it was gone when it left the bat and saw it go over the fence when I was rounding first base."
After the Spartans (31-15 overall, 9-6 Big Ten) scored four runs to take a 4-0 lead in the top of the fifth inning, the thought of Indiana (18-28 overall, 1-13 Big Ten) scoring five unanswered runs over the final three innings looked to be as probable as the Detroit Tigers' ability to put together a three-game winning streak. But that is exactly what the Hoosiers did as two-run home runs by both junior Dawn Ramynke and senior Stormy Hanson in the bottom of the fifth tied the game at four, setting up Griffiths' late-game heroics.
"I just feel really good for [seniors] Katie Joy and Bubba (Heather Suca) and for the rest of the team," said Hanson, whose home run was her 12th of the season. "I'm hopeful that we can carry the momentum from this victory into our final four games. At least now we know we can win in the Big Ten."
Prior to the four-run fifth, Indiana had gone 27 innings in Big Ten action without scoring a run. It had also been 728 days since the Hoosiers had scored more than four runs in a Big Ten contest.
Junior Heather Stillians (9-15), who entered the contest immediately following Tiffany Wallace's bases clearing triple with one out in the top of the fifth, allowed only one hit over the final 2 2/3 innings to shut down the Spartans. She allowed two walks and struck out one.
Beech, who made her entrance into the contest following Ramynke's two-run blast in the bottom of the fifth, began the game with a 0.95 earned run average, yet surrendered two home runs and three earned runs in 2 1/3 innings pitched. Spartan starter Stephanie Christner allowed four hits and two earned runs in 4.0 innings.
Today's game at Old College Field looked as if it would follow the script of so many other IU softball losses this season. The Hoosiers would play well for five or six innings, yet make enough mistakes to suffer a narrow loss. Early today it looked as if this game would be like another song stuck in the same groove on a worn-out 45-RPM record.
After four innings, sophomore Katie Witham had only allowed three hits, while striking out four, as the two teams had yet to remove zeroes from the run column on the scoreboard. Yet, in the top of the fifth, Hayes, who has successfully gambled most of the year, chose to spin the roulette wheel once again. It spun, and spun, and stopped on four Michigan State runs with the benefit of only one hit.
After a leadoff walk, sacrifice bunt, and a wild pitch in the fifth, Hayes decided to walk the second and third hitters in the Spartan lineup to load the bases. Wallace, the cleanup hitter in the MSU lineup, made her pay as she tripled into the rightfield corner to clear the bases. Michigan State added a run later in the inning to take a 4-0 lead.
Yet, someone put a firm finger on top of the record needle and somehow willed it to finish the song - a sweet sounding melody at that.
Indiana returns to action on Sunday when it faces No. 14 Michigan for a doubleheader in Ann Arbor that begins at 1:00 p.m. EDT/12:00 p.m. EST.