Junior Claudia Vazquez came to the plate for the Fort Hays State University softball team with a chance to turn a dream all ball players have as youngsters into a reality.
Vazquez stepped into the batter’s box with the bases loaded and two outs in a tie game in the bottom of the final inning. She saw ball 1 before fouling off a pitch. The sequence repeated before watching a high pitch bring up a full count. At that point, the lefty slap-hitter flipped a mental switch to take the pressure off herself.
“I just had the mentality that the pressure is on the pitcher, not on me” said Vazquez, the Tigers’ two-hole hitter with a .179 batting average, the lowest among all starters. “She’s gotta be able to come in and throw me some strikes. I was just patient and having fun.”
Marina Quimby appeared in relief at the beginning of the sixth and worked around a fielding error by her third baseman to keep Washburn ahead, 5-4. But Vazquez drew the fourth and final walk of an FHSU batter in the seventh inning, allowing Erin Elmore to cross the plate as the game-winning run for a 6-5 victory via a walk-off walk in Game 1 of a doubleheader Saturday at Tiger Stadium.
Kylie Strand drew the first two-out walk to load the bases. Rilee Krier followed up with a four-pitch walk to score Ashley Beavers and tie the game. FHSU head coach Adrian Mohr called for time and approached Vazquez for a few final words of advice before her at-bat.
“It’s just one of those moments where the tying run has already scored, so in our minds the pressure’s off right there,” Mohr said. “Being the one to score the winning run is the fun part. That’s all I told her.”
Although the at-bat did not end with a hit or home run as many dreams do, it brought home the winning run to bring Fort Hays’ winning streak to three.
“I think we’re just coming together as a team and things are working for us,” Vazquez said. “We get someone who starts a rally and we just build off each other.”
The Tigers fell behind 5-0 through 2.2 innings of work by sophomore Carrie Clarke. She allowed five runs (two earned) off seven hits and three walks, striking out just one on the day. A pair of nice plays by third baseman Kylie Strand and a diving grab by second baseman Courtney Dobson forced Washburn to strand seven runners through the first three innings.
Paxton Duran entered in relief with two outs and the bases loaded in the third and struck out Washburn’s top hitter, Cassie Merriman, to end the inning and swing momentum in favor of FHSU.
“Little plays like that get the team pumped up and give us momentum,” Vazquez said.
With Krier on and facing two outs, Tori Beltz lined a single up the middle to get FHSU on the board in the third. Beltz advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Samantha Villarreal to cut the deficit to 5-2.
Washburn again got two runners on base after surrendering two outs, though Strand made a diving catch and received a face full of dirt in the process to end the inning.
Mackenzie Villarreal brought the Tigers within two on a two-out RBI single off the bat of Krier in the bottom of the fourth. Duran scored Samantha Villarreal on a two-out RBI single in the fifth to bring FHSU within a single run, though Strand grounded out with the bases loaded to end the inning.
Washburn was sent down in order in the fifth and sixth, three out coming on strikeouts from Duran. She allowed just three hits and one walk while striking out five in 4.1 innings of work.
Ichabod designated player Sierra Kemp fouled off six pitches to start the seventh before singling to right. Haylee Marsteller drew a walk from a 3-2 count, only for Duran to get a strikeout and groundout to end the inning, setting up the FHSU bats for a seventh-inning rally.
After a Dobson walk led off the inning, Mackenzie Villarreal belted a pitch down the line to left field and over the fence. However, the ball drifted into foul territory and drew an all-too-early celebration from the Fort Hays State bench. Winds gusted well into the 20-mph range toward left field, conditions not ideal for softball, so much so that the teams combined for 68 foul balls. Regardless, the Tigers responded to what their coach has been asking of them for some time.
“I don’t know exactly what it is,” Mohr said. “All I can say is we’ve been talking a lot about going out there and putting on a performance that you can walk away proud with. I just feel like what they’ve been doing, just staying within ourselves a little bit more and not trying to do too much.”
Coming into the four-game homestand, the Tigers were losers of nine straight games, two of them coming in walk-off fashion Tuesday against Newman. The Tigers have lost seven games via walk-offs in 2016.
But with the Tigers fighting for a spot in the MIAA Tournament, Mohr did not let her team get discouraged by an early five-run deficit.
“She just told us to stay positive, don’t get down on it and we’ll fight back,” Vazquez said. “One by one each inning, we kinda crept up, little by little.”
Though overcoming the adversity of a difficult stretch in the season might have played a factor in the Tiger’s resurgence of late, Mohr wants to see her team stay on the roll before jumping to conclusions.
“The battle’s always been there. It’s just nice to see us finally get over that hump and be confident in those pressure situations,” Mohr said. “That’s what we haven’t been doing. That sounds really nice and is something I’d like to say. … I’ll believe it as we progress more.”
The Tigers got all the offense they needed in Game 2 in a three-run third. Krier scored on a throwing error after a leadoff triple. Vazquez, who put the ball in play to force the error, advanced all the way to third and score on a Samantha Villarreal single. Chermayne Yago scored the final run of the game on an RBI single by Mackenzie Villarreal.
Duran threw all seven innings, allowing just four hits and one walk to five strikeouts. Her two wins on the day push her to 12-16 on the season. FHSU improves to 17-26 overall and 10-13 in the MIAA with its fourth consecutive win, pushing them into seventh in the MIAA. The top eight in the standings advance to the postseason in Oklahoma City.
The Tigers return to action Tuesday for a non-conference doubleheader at Oklahoma Christian before a home-and-home doubleheader with Nebraska-Kearney closes the regular season next weekend.
Fort Hays State 6, Washburn 5
Washburn (17-20, 7-12) 113 000 0 — 5 10 3
Fort Hays (16-26, 10-13) 002 110 2 — 6 9 3
WP — Duran (11-16). LP — Quimby (1-3). WU: Carson, Quimby (6) and Myers. FHSU: Clarke, Duran (3) and Elmore. 2B — WU: Zimmerman.
Fort Hays State 3, Washburn 0
Washburn (17-21, 7-13) 000 000 0 — 0 4 1
Fort Hays (17-26, 11-13) 003 000 x — 3 8 1
WP — Duran (12-16). LP — Wills (8-9). WU: Wills and Myers. FHSU: Duran and Knittig, Elmore (7). 2B — WU: Merriman.