Arizona State catches a break in Day 1 defeat of Alabama

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It had drama, intrigue and ample ammunition for second-guessing. It also had the two best offenses in college softball. Too bad it took place as darkness descended on Hall of Fame Stadium on Thursday instead of Monday.

Arizona State's dramatic three-run rally in the top of the seventh gave the Pac-10 champions a 3-1 win against Alabama. In its third consecutive trip to the Women's College World Series, Arizona State finally escaped with a first-day win. That's an especially precious commodity this year, in a half of the bracket that offers only peril for teams trying to scratch together four wins to advance out of the losers' bracket.

A team that couldn't seem to catch a break on Oklahoma's capital city the last two years caught exactly the kind of break champions seem to find during a seven-day marathon.

With the score tied 1-1 in the top of the seventh and runners on first and second for the Sun Devils, Mandy Urfer ripped a line drive down the third base line. Alabama third baseman Kelly Montalvo dove toward the line and either did or did not make contact with the ball, depending on whom you listened to after the game. Ruled a hit by home plate umpire Linda Hoover, Urfer's double drove in the eventual winning runs.

"The plate umpire's judgment was that the third baseman tipped it," NCAA Coordinator of Umpires Kathy Strahm told a pool reporter after the game. "When she tipped the ball it was on the line."

Alabama coach Pat Murphy immediately protested the call and replays appeared to indicate the ball was foul before Montalvo tipped it -- if she ever touched it at all. Arizona State coach Clint Myers, coaching third base at the time, said he thought the ball definitely hit her glove. Montalvo offered that it definitely did not.

Alabama catcher Ashley Holcombe, who had ostensibly the same view as Hoover, offered a contrasting opinion from the woman in blue.

"I definitely thought it was foul, and I definitely thought she didn't touch it," Holcombe said.

Of course, Urfer's hit was only the second controversial call of the inning, and the first had nothing to do with the umpires. As he had in each of Kaitlin Cochran's previous two plate appearances (she was hit by a pitch in her first at-bat), Murphy elected to intentionally walk Cochran and put the tying run on first when she led off the seventh.

The move backfired when Lesley Rogers drilled an uncontroversial double into the left-center gap, scoring Cochran and putting one of the runners on base that would eventually score on Urfer's hit (Rene Welty was the second runner after she was hit by a pitch).

"She's a very good hitter," Murphy said of Cochran. "Obviously we respected the heck out of her."

Northwestern faced the same dilemma in its super regional against Arizona State. With a 1-0 lead in the third inning of the opening game, the Wildcats elected to let ace Lauren Delaney pitch to Cochran with a runner on first base. One of the hardest throwers in the game, Delaney put a rise ball up in the zone where almost no hitter could catch up to it -- "almost" because Cochran is the exception that proves the rule. She climbed the ladder and drove the ball over the fence for a two-run home run. She was walked in each of her five remaining plate appearances, four times intentionally, but the damage was done.

Softball isn't baseball. Cochran entered the game hitting .448 with 36 extra-base hits despite being pitched around enough to have drawn 66 total walks and 23 intentional walks. She's a better than 50-50 bet to reach first base in any given plate appearance, so why risk letting her do worse with an extra-base hit? Even fans who only watch the game in Oklahoma City intuitively sense the impact dominant pitchers like Monica Abbott and Angela Tincher have on games, but Cochran is their hitting equivalent.

Second-guessing Murphy's move might be an easy reaction, but it's less useful than focusing on how the Sun Devils handled the aftermath. In two losses in last year's World Series, Cochran was walked three times; her teammates produced five hits in 14 innings.

But Rogers and Urfer, two members of Arizona State's deep freshman class, picked up the slack this time around, just as fellow freshman Krista Donnenwirth nearly did when she sent a ball to the left field wall after a walk to Cochran earlier in the game. And veterans like Mindy Cowles, Kristen Miller and Jackie Vasquez have done the same this season.

"I just don't get it," Cochran said. "We have so many good players, one through nine in the lineup. There is a new hero every game. I guess they wanted to pitch to the rest of the lineup but they got hurt."

It's not that pitching to Cochran is any more sensible now than it has ever been during her illustrious career; it's just that pitching to the rest of the lineup is more perilous.

The truth is there simply wasn't a right way to shut down the Sun Devils on Thursday night. And that's why whatever seed they entered with, they have to be considered the championship favorite in the wake of Florida's loss earlier in the day.

"Instead of just being the sixth seed here, I think it opened a few eyes," ASU ace Katie Burkhart said. "It's good to have that little notch in the belt."

And whether that's primarily because of an umpire's bad call, a coach's strategy, Alabama's inability to convert runners on base into runs, or Arizona State's timely hitting, the fact is championships turn on all those things. On Thursday night, in what might prove to be a test run for a title, they turned in Arizona State's favor.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.