CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson Softball is one win from winning a championship.
The Tigers advanced to the Clemson Regional Finals on Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Auburn in Game 3 of the regional. They now await the winner of Game 5 in the championship round which begins at noon from McWhorter Stadium.
Whoever plays the ACC’s Tigers, they will have to record two wins on Sunday to advance after playing two games on Saturday.
“It is an advantage. The other team, whoever we play tomorrow, has to play another one tonight,” Clemson head coach John Rittman said. “They both will have played two games today in this heat. The biggest thing is we have to worry about ourselves, and we have said that all year long. If we take care of ourselves and play the way that we are capable of playing, we can win a championship.”
Clemson (41-15) played liked a championship team on Saturday. Valerie Cagle produced a great performance in the circle, while her defense came up big for her in the clutch.
Though the ACC’s Tigers produced just three hits off Auburn’s Maddie Penta, they got the big hits when they needed them the most.
“We found a way to win a game,” Rittman said. “Hats off to Valerie Cagle for pitching a terrific game. Six strikeouts and pitched herself out of some jams. The defense let her down a little bit late, but we did not panic, and we fought through that adversity, and we found a way to win a game.
“I don’t think in February or March we win that game. That is a tribute to our team.”
Clemson, the No. 10 overall seed in the NCAA Softball Tournament, scored the game’s lone run in the bottom of the fourth inning when Cagle got a two-out double for the Tigers’ first hit of the afternoon. Guimbarda then followed with a blooper to left field to score Cagle for their 1-0 lead.
It appeared Auburn’s Nelia Peralta was going to make a Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder-catch, but the ball popped off the tip of her glove and over leftfielder Lindsey Garcia’s. The ball rolled into left field, allowing Cagle to easily score from second and Guimbarda to reach with a stand-up double.
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“I think there are times where Coach Rittman even said, sometimes bloop hits win the game,” Guimbarda said. “That hit does not matter if it was not for Valerie’s shot to the fence before then.”
Auburn (40-16) loaded the bases with one out in the top of the sixth inning.
The SEC’s Tigers had something going when pinch hitter Jessie Blaine got on with an infield hit to third. Cagle’s one true mistake, a fielder’s choice error to second, allowed Kelsey Schmidt to reach. Lindsey Garcia then singled to right field to load the bases.
“That is a situation I have been in a lot,” Cagle said. “It is just about remembering I have gotten out of those situations before and really just not trying to make the moment bigger than it is.”
Clark, who led Clemson with three hits on Friday, got on her horse and tracked down Carlee McCondichie flyball to center. The sophomore then made a perfect throw to home plate to keep pinch runner Kenadie Cooper at third.
Cagle got out of the jam when she got Auburn’s best hitter, Peralta, to hit into a force at short to retire the side.
“Most scouting reports are going to say that you can’t run on McKenzie Clark’s arm,” Rittman said. “Last week, we kind of got taken by surprise. Florida State sent a runner on third on a very similar ball, and I think it caught McKenzie by surprise, too.
“So today, I knew anything in her vicinity, she is going to catch it and she is going to throw her out. She did. She has a terrific arm. She is a fine tool player. She made the big throw to hold her at third.”
Cagle, who improved to 16-8 in the circle, went the distance in pitching yet another shutout. She allowed just four hits and struck out six to put her Tigers in position to win their first NCAA Regional.
“Certainly, championship games, we have some experience,” Rittman said. “We played in the regional championship last year in Alabama. We played in the ACC Championship game last year. We played in the ACC Championship game last week.
“That is one of the things I have emphasized with our team. We have to stay relaxed. We have to come out and play our game. Not make the moment too big. It is a big game, but it is another game. If we come out and play the way we are capable of playing, then we can win a championship tomorrow.”