Their aces dueled into extra innings. Hits were sparse and rarely in tandem. One team’s injured star became one of its most important leaders even while sidelined. Another carried their team back from the brink of elimination with a pair of mighty home runs. One sought its first trip to a championship in two decades; the other, its first trip ever.
For the favorite, it was an unenviable position they found themselves in. Their ace had been torched the game before, yet came out swinging and took the team the distance. The underdog in turn was perhaps the most unlikely of underdogs, having already won more games than any team before them. They’d come in at the top, yet were suddenly staring down their last loss and last chance.
And now, here they were.
Bottom ninth. 1-0. Two outs. Winning run on third. First pitch popped right, hanging high, fair, fair, foul, foul, soaring high before falling falling falling into the first baseman’s glove. Game over.
You may not know this, but one of the greatest postseason games in the history of the diamond was played today in Oklahoma City: the #5 Florida versus #1 Texas A&M game of the Women’s Softball World Series. Florida went 62-2 in the regular season yet couldn’t dominate in similarly consistent fashion through the rest of the tournament, nearly knocked out in the first round. On the other side, A&M barreled to the top of the tourney rankings even without their other top pitcher, Amanda Scarborough.
In lieu of taking the mound, Scarborough fell into a de facto pitching coach position, going so far as to head out for conferences with A&M pitcher Megan Gibson. In the bottom of the 7th, Scarborough, printouts in hand, called time and ran out to talk strategy with Gibson against Florida pinch-hitter Kelsey Bruder. Four pitches later, Bruder was out and it was on to the top of the 8th. A&M went on to win that game and move on to a finals completely void of NCAAW powerhouses UCLA and Arizona, the equivalent of an AL East race involving neither Boston nor New York.
Cheesy as it was – and believe me, the ESPN crew wasted no time playing up the Scarborough/Gibson friendship/coach/”they’re in this to win together” angle – it’s moments like that that make NCAAW softball so cool and yet so infuriating.
On one hand, games like this one make for great sportswatching. The physics of a softball render the longball nearly impossible, so the girls are forced to play a fundamentally sound game at all times and not just when the situation calls for it. The smaller diamond places more pressure on both fielders and batters alike, as the smallest movements are magnified substantially; the reduced distance between the pitcher’s circle and home plate coupled with the underhand motion in turn puts some downright cruel pitches at the girls’ disposal.
On the other hand, a lot of the “girlification” of softball makes for a very perplexing viewing experience. One moment you see the girls high-fiving in the pitcher’s circle after a strikeout, and the next that pitcher is throwing at an opposing batter’s head. They compete as fiercely and with as much intensity as anyone in any other sport, yet still package it all with pretty faces and teamwide cheerleading. The sports fan in me says this is totally awesome; the bachelor in me agrees, but wonders if there might be some larger symbolism at work here.
Whatever the case, it was one for the ages. Considering the dearth of open positions in the National Pro Fastpitch league, for a lot of these girls this could be the last high-stakes game they ever play. It’s tempting to cite this “this is our last chance” mentality as the reason for the preponderance of top-notch play that happens so often during tournaments such as this, but that’s overlooking the simple fact that these players and these teams are the best at what they do. Diving catches, sacrifice flies, drag bunts: just watch. Then believe.
The Texas A&M Aggies play the Arizona State Sun Devils tomorrow at 6pm (7pm EST). The girls need you and – more importantly – you need them. See you in the sports pages.