OKLAHOMA CITY -- Arizona State didn't lose a game here last season, marching unbeaten through the bracket en route to the program's first national championship.
That streak ended Friday night in a 1-0 eight-inning loss against Washington, but not before a Sun Devils freshman who towers over most players stepped out of another's shadow to claim her own place in the spotlight. It's not Hillary Bach's job to make people forget about Katie Burkhart, the dominant southpaw who rolled through batters in last season's tournament; it's Bach's job to give these Sun Devils a chance to win games now.
Matched for eight innings against Danielle Lawrie, the USA Softball Player of the Year and a veteran every bit as intimidating as Burkhart was last season, Bach did just that in front of the largest crowd ever to file into Hall of Fame Stadium for a session at the Women's College World Series.
She gave the Sun Devils a chance to win, even if they ultimately fell short.
"I thought Hillary Bach pitched a masterful game, probably the best collegiate game of her 45 games that she's pitched this year," Arizona State coach Clint Myers said. "I feel bad that we were unable to get her any runs. But I tell you what, you didn't see a freshman pitch tonight; you saw a pitcher pitch tonight."
Bach has been a story all week in Oklahoma City, but as much a curiosity as an ace. She's an Oklahoma kid -- she's from Tulsa -- who traveled west to the mighty Pac-10. She's a goofy, cheerful personality, constantly smiling on the mound, unwilling to stalk around the circle or sulk after seeing a hitter get the best of her. Even in defeat Friday, after pitching the game of her life, she was a little bummed but hardly bowed.
"I think it was a really good battle on both sides," Bach said. "I felt really good about it. It wasn't fun -- it was fun, just the outcome wasn't very fun on our side. But yeah, I thought it was a good game; I left it on the field."
Bach wasn't necessarily supposed to be in this position so soon, or in the position of starting all but one of Arizona State's nine NCAA tournament games. She was just one of three candidates to earn innings with Burkhart no longer around, and she split innings and starts early in the season. But as the games unfolded and Arizona State's pitching struggled to keep up with the team's powerhouse lineup, Bach began to see more and more of the ball.
A fellow newcomer, but also a senior after transferring from Louisville, catcher Kaylyn Castillo saw something in the young pitcher right from the outset.
"In the beginning of the year, I knew she was going to be good because she just looks like she has all the pieces," Castillo said. "And she has all the pitches. It was just more like refining them and learning the whole mental approach of the whole thing. I'm privileged to be her catcher this whole season and be able to watch her grow and work with her through this whole thing because I'm learning with her as well."
Bach throws hard with leverage at 6-foot-2, but she is not a dominant strikeout pitcher in the sense of a Burkhart or Lawrie. Instead, she uses her power in conjunction with her spin and location to try to put balls in places where hitters can do little but serve up chances for her defense. Learning to be the best of what she is -- and not the best of what others project on her -- has been a key.
"It's more like you don't need to throw a strike every time to get people out," Castillo said. "It's not really about trying to blow it by them. It's more about spinning the ball and making them swing at your pitch, your best pitch. Half the time -- I'm a hitter, I know -- you get yourself out [as a hitter]. It's more like using their mental attitude against them. And that's what [Bach's] kind of learning now."
This was Washington's game to win or lose throughout, which only made the freshman's perseverance that much more impressive. The Huskies did get to Bach, collecting six hits and two walks even before the production in the bottom of the eighth that produced the win. It took a sensational play from Castillo, in conjunction with Kaitlin Cochran and Ashley Muenz, to keep the game scoreless in the fourth inning after Alicia Blake's double nearly scored Jennifer Salling from first base.
But even if her own team's missed opportunities played a prominent role in the length of the game, Washington coach Heather Tarr was entirely willing to give Bach her due after the Huskies faced the young pitcher for the third time this season, winning two and losing one.
"I think she's gotten better," Tarr said. "I think she does a really good job of hitting spots; she doesn't miss much over the plate. Anytime a pitcher can do that, they're going to have a good amount of success. I think she's a great pitcher, and it's neat to see her as a freshman be able to do what she's been able to do."
It's also no doubt easier to appreciate one win from the championship series, where Washington now is for the second time in three seasons. Lawrie got the job done in more than able fashion against a good Georgia lineup in her team's opening game Thursday, but she was at her best inning after inning against the Sun Devils. An Arizona State team that had collected 20 hits in its first three looks at Lawrie this season struggled to make any sort of solid contact with a full array of pitches moving through the horizontal and vertical planes.
"Yesterday was probably like a B-minus game, and when you're at the World Series, that's just not acceptable," Lawrie said. "We only get one opportunity to kind of be here and show what we're made of. So me being one that wants to help lead this team can't have performances like that."
The best pitcher and the best team won Friday's duel, fighting through their own missed opportunities, missed calls from those in blue and sensational defense from the Sun Devils. But that does little to dim the luster on the freshman with the perpetual smile.
"Her best pitching is still a ways ahead of her," Myers said of Bach. "She's 19 years old, but she has an idea. She was just a freshman coming in. A pitcher sits before you tonight. She was a thrower when she came. She sits before you as a pitcher now."
And Saturday brings another opportunity for her to give her team a chance to win.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.