E.A. Sports Today

Foul ending

Vipers get strong pitching performance from Willis, but controversial foul-ball call with two outs in bottom of seventh inning denies would-be tying run in loss to Spark

Vipers pitcher Annie Willis lets fly against the Oklahoma City Spark on Thursday at Choccolocco Park. (Photo by Joe Medley)

By Joe Medley
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD — How close did the Smash It Sports Vipers come to their first series victory of 2023 Thursday?

Like, almost-extra-innings close … and controversial-call close.

A called foul ball when it appeared that Makena Smith’s would-be, game-tying home run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning flew over the foul pole left the Vipers spitting venom after a 3-2 loss to the Oklahoma City Spark.

The loss in the final game of a three-game series with the Spark (8-2) at Choccolocco Park denied the Vipers (2-8) their first series victory of the season. They won Wednesday’s game 4-1 after losing Tuesday’s opener 3-0.

The series was the Vipers’ fourth of the season and second at home. They got their first win in their second home game, during a weekend series with the Texas Smoke.

The loss also meant that Annie Willis’ strong relief appearance over the final four innings went for naught.

“This hurts,” Vipers coach Gerry Glasco said. “This team needs that break, and we didn’t get it.”

Talk immediately after the game centered on Smith’s two-out at bat in the bottom of the seventh. With an 0-1 count, the talkative third baseman with Chipmunks walk-up music sent a shot down the left-field line. It appeared to fly over the rectangular cage attached to the inside of the foul pole before tailing left.

Glasco spiked his cap while arguing the call.

“It’s where it crosses the fence,” he said. “When it went over the foul pole, it was over the foul pole, and it hooked foul. You don’t watch it after it hooks foul.

“It wasn’t even on the edge of the foul pole. It was in the middle of the foul pole, and we didn’t get the call.”

Smith struck out on the next pitch. Arguably the Vipers’ most intense and talkative player from first pitch to last, she shook off requests for postgame interviews.

Spark reliever Chenise Delce finished off 3 2/3 innings of relief for the save. She allowed one hit, Alissa Dalton’s RBI single to make it 3-2 in the fourth inning, and struck out three batters. She struck out Suzy Brookshire and got Smith to pop out with bases loaded in the fourth.

Starter Keely Rochard was charged with both runs but got the win after 3 1/3 innings of work.

Just as dramatically as Delce worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the fourth, Willis did it in the top of the inning.

Willis came on in relief of starter Meghan Schorman with no outs and two runners on and hit Fa Leilua to load the bases with the top of the order coming up, but Willis calmly struck out Michelle Moultrie. Sydney Sherrill, who hit a solo home run in the first inning, popped out, and Willis struck out Jocelyn Alo, one of Women’s Professional Fastpitch softball’s most feared hitters.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know, but I literally told myself, I was like, I’m going to get in there, and I’m going to give it all to the defense behind me and us to work on getting out of it together,” Willis said. “It was pretty much just throw the pitch that (catcher) Mary (Iakopo) calls and let the defense work behind me.”

Willis went on to strike out five batters and allow three hits over four innings.

“Annie was really good,” Glasco said. “I thought Schorman gave us a good start, and Annie was really effective, coming in in relief. Fantastic, throwing hard and attacking batters.”

The Spark built a 2-0 lead on Sherrill’s solo homer and Keilani Ricketts’ RBI single in the first inning. Dalton’s fielder’s choice plated a run to bring the Vipers within 2-1 in the second inning.

That set up Willis’ fourth-inning fire dousing.

The Spark started the rally with Yvonne Whaley’s ground-rule double and Lynnsie Elam’s single to put runners on second and third. Chloe Malauulu shot a line drive down the third-base line, hard enough to knock Smith’s glove off of her hand as she tried to make a leaping catch, and Whaley scored for a 3-1 lead.

The Vipers called Willis to the circle after that, and she worked out of a bases-loaded jam.

Delce did the same in the bottom of the fourth. The Vipers also left runners on second and third bases in the first and second innings.

“We didn’t help ourselves,” Glasco said. “We should’ve tagged in the first inning. We had a chance to tag and come in, and we hesitated. We played a little tentative there, and then we had bases loaded and didn’t get the big hit.”

Moultrie, the Spark’s right fielder, also robbed the Vipers three times. She ran up and made a diving catch on Brooke Wilmes would-be single in the second inning, ran down Karly Heath’s liner to the warning track in the third inning then ranged for a sprinting catch to deny Tatyana Forbes’ potential double in the gap in the sixth.

“That’s what’s fun about the WPF,” Glasco said. “You saw catches tonight by Moultrie in right field. You can watch a whole college season, and you won’t see two catches better than she made tonight.

“That was really a good game from a defensive standpoint, seeing an outfielder like Moultrie out there making those catches. You’re talking about a kid who was center fielder on the Olympic team, All-American center fielder at Florida. She’s just always been a freak defensive player.”

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