May 10, 2012
By Jon Cooper
That faith was tested on Thursday afternoon in the seventh inning of Tech’s ACC Tournament opener against Virginia as the Jackets had seen a 6-0 lead melt away to 6-4, and there was only one out and the tying run stood at second base.
Perkins stuck to her guns and her big gun. That faith was rewarded, as Tech held on for a 6-4 victory and will advance in the ACC Tournament.
“We were really just focused on let’s get the outs. Let’s not force anything. Let’s field the ball clean and just get the outs and not let the runners advance,” said Tech’s head coach. “We wanted her to just go at the hitters and play smart.”
Rush never doubted.
“I have a lot of confidence in my team and a lot of defense behind me,” said the junior pitcher, who recorded her 23rd win of the season with her 29th complete game. “Even if they had tied it I have a lot of confidence in my offense, too, that we were going to win the game.”
While Rush pitched from behind a lot of the game, Perkins remained comfortable with her ace because of the location of the missed pitches.
“I was really impressed though with how she kept the ball down,” Perkins said. “The last time that she faced Virginia, all of the hits were because everything was high. So when she keeps it down in the zone she’s a little more successful. So I don’t really mind that she was missing some down.”
“I was proud of her for battling,” she added. “She kept getting behind but she kept fighting and the defense was there for her, too. They kept putting it together.”
Tech put together a string of goose-eggs over the first six innings and appeared on their way sweet revenge on their nemesis, Virginia starter Melanie Mitchell. Jackets batters put up six runs and nine hits, including three homers, in building a 6-0 lead. They’d totaled two runs and eight hits in 14 innings in two run-ins with Mitchell this season — two runs and 12 hits in 21 innings if you count last year’s four-hit shutout in the 2012 ACCs.
Rush’s titanic blast over the trees beyond the center field fence off a 3-0 pitch seemed to be the coup de grace.
“It felt pretty good. It was a 3-0 count and I was looking for something to drive,” said Rush of her 11th homer of the year, which she admitted may have caught Mitchell off-guard. “Probably so because most of the times I don’t swing 3-0. So that was something different from what normally happens.”
Tech was aggressive from the very beginning. Second baseman Ashley Thomas set the tone by battling Virginia’s junior right-hander, in an 11-pitch at-bat to start the game.
“I think [Thomas’ at-bat] set the tone for the game,” said Perkins. “It’s fighting it and fighting the ball off until we get a better one. She really did a great job. I’m proud of the team for coming in and being aggressive at the plate and trying to get a good pitch to hit.”
Mitchell retired Thomas then struck out two-time ACC Player of the Year Kelsi Weseman, but Kate Kuzma roped the first pitch she saw to left and Alysha Rudnik hit a 2-1 pitch off the scoreboard in left-center for a 2-0 Tech lead.
“I think coming into this tournament our overall presence was better but also we were just being very aggressive at the plate,” said Rush. “When she did throw it over the plate we were swinging, not watching it. Overall as a team we were more aggressive.”
The sixth-seeded Cavaliers were a little more passive, as Rush consistently pitched from behind. She walked seven batters on the game and left the bases littered with runners (the Cavs stranded nine).
One runner who wasn’t stranded but who gave Tech a big early break was center fielder Giannina Cipolloni, who was called out for leaving first base too soon on a hit-and-run. Later in the at-bat, shortstop Alex Skinkis doubled to right field, a hit upon which she might have scored.
Rush played Houdini with the 2-0 lead until the Jackets added some insurance in the fifth.
Shannon Bear belted a 1-1 pitch out to left, jump-starting a three-run outburst. Every ball the Jackets hit appeared to have eyes. Freshman Katie Johnsky, who went 2-for-3 against Mitchell, raising her average against her to .625 (5-for-8) singled. Karly Fullem placed a looper just inside the left-field line. One out later Weseman lifted a sac fly to center before Kuzma ripped another RBI single, again on the first offering. Then came Rush’s homer in the sixth and the game appeared on ice.
But Virginia had other ideas.
They got back-to-back pinch-hit homers to open the inning. One out later, Rush issued a pair of walks. After a single to left to cut the lead in half, centerfielder Hayley Downs couldn’t handle the fly to mid-right-center after a long run and received her first error of the season. The score was 6-4 with runners at second and third.
The once moribund Cavalier bench was up and alive.
Rush, whose pitch-count neared 130, battled on. She’d been in spots like this before.
“It all goes into the basics and what you focused on and what you’ve worked on from the beginning,” she said. “As a team, we’ve played a bunch of games especially early on, we played Oklahoma, Arizona, Alabama and Georgia. Playing really good teams like that helps coming into the ACC Tournament. Looking back at that and going back to the basics and looking at how far we’ve come helps tremendously.”
So did having Weseman at third.
Marcy Bowdren, the Cavs’ second-leading home run hitter, laced a 2-1 pitch to third. But Weseman vacuumed up the one-hopper, checked the runner and threw across the diamond for the out. The last chance was Kennedy Byxbee. Byxbee had two homers in 2012, but one beat Rush on March 11. She drove a 2-1 pitch to deep center but Downs, running to her left squeezed the ball right at the wall, ending the rally.
The Jackets will face No. 2 seed Florida State tomorrow afternoon, with first pitch scheduled for 1:00 p.m.
Perkins doesn’t expect any drastic changes against the Seminoles, who took two of three in Tallahassee (all three games were decided by one run) especially not at the plate.
“Basically, just the same approach as we took going into the Virginia game: let’s be aggressive at the plate, find a good pitch to hit, not take so many pitches and let her get ahead,” she said. “If she’s going to come in first pitch for a strike let’s hit it.”
Perkins didn’t confirm her starting pitcher — she’s going to confer with assistant coach Shaina Ervin in the morning — but Rush expects to be out there.
“Yeah. For sure,” she said. “This is postseason. I feel good. So I’ll be ready to go.”
“Everybody is so passionate about what they want and wants to walk away with the ACC Championship,” she said. “You can just tell the difference, the presence of the team this weekend versus any other series.”
Perkins spent the rest of Thursday scouting the remaining two games on the schedule (No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 8 Boston College and No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 5 Maryland) before heading back to the hotel to try to get some sleep. That won’t come easy but will come easier than it looked during the top of the seventh.
“There’s no time to take a break now,” she said. “This is why we’re here. I can sleep later.”