There are some advantages to being in a four-team league in North America. The primary advantage is that on a good day, you can still play for a championship.
Such is the state of women's professional fast-pitch softball in the United States. The 2011 teams include the first-place USSSA (FL) Pride (30-9), the Akron (OH) Racers (22-12), the Chicago Bandits (20-20), and the cellar-dwelling NPF (TN) Diamonds (6-32).
And that is precisely where the Chicago Bandits find themselves on Sunday, August 21. The Bandits need just one win to clinch their second NPF Cowles Cup as World Champions. Their best-of-three series saw the Bandits, mediocre at best during the season, bring it together for the championship rounds. The Pride, who took the championship from the Bandits in 2010 and led the league all season, will need to win both games today in a best-of-three series to claim the crown.
Today's matchup features the new "face" of the Bandits franchise--pitcher Monica Abbott, and the Pride, behind NPF statistical leader Sarah Pauly and living legend Cat Osterman. The Bandits defeated the Akron Racers on Friday, nullifying a mediocre season while a virtually new roster jelled, while the Pride eliminated the Diamonds.
On Saturday night, the Bandits took Game One from the Pride in the best-of-three championship. It wasn't easy. The Pride got on the board with two runs in the bottom of the second inning when Natasha Watley blasted a two-run single off Abbott, scoring Ashley Charters and Kelly Kretschman. Osterman, however, suffered an injury that took her out of the game. Head Coach Tim Walton said she lost her front foot with the rubber, and slid her front foot forward, injuring her bicep. Pauly came in and finished the game for Osterman.
And the Bandits battled back. At the top of the fifth, three singles put the Bandits' Vicky Galindo, Stacy May-Johnson and Amber Patton on base for rookie Megan Wiggins, who rocketed a three-run double to give the Bandits a 3-2 lead. Then, the Pride evened it up in the bottom of the seventh, when third baseman Andrea Duran launched a solo home run over the fence to tie the ballgame and force extra innings.
Then Abbott changed herself up by incorporating a signature, if little-used pitch: the changeup. Abbott froze the final three Pride batters, getting Caitlin Lowe to fly out and then struck out Jessica Mendoza and Charlotte Morgan to seal the victory for the Bandits, giving Chicago a one game lead in the best-of-three National Pro Fastpitch Championship Series
Abbott said of her decision: "As a pitcher you always go to your strengths and you definitely try and exploit certain weaknesses. I always try to go to my strengths and use my defense behind me. "
Consecutive 1-2-3 innings from Abbott forced the Pride to their final out. In the top of the eighth the Bandits offense went to work once again with Galindo reaching first base on a single and then eventually reaching third on an illegal pitch call against Pride pitcher Sarah Pauly. Patton’s single brought her home for the go ahead run and a 4-3 lead.
Abbott was also appreciative of the team effort: "I think what’s really cool about our team right now is that after I made that bad throw; maybe Tammy or Lever said you know what, we will score, we will get it back for you. "
Clinching the championship would be sweet vindication for a team that saw their world-class ace pitcher retire in 2010, followed by a 2011 season where they opened a brand-new, 1,600-seat facility in Rosemont, whose address is 27 Jennie Finch Way (but is actually located at Bryn Mawr and Pearl Avenues). They endured a mediocre .500 season, and third place finish in the regular season with a virtually new roster.
At a recent practice I attended at Frozen Ropes, the Bandits' practice facility in Niles, I spoke with some of the players, including rookie and Northwestern University student Robin Thompson and veteran Vicky Galindo, who's played in the league for seven seasons. Galindo remarked on the great support they've received all year since the opening of the new facility. When asked about winning the championship, Galindo said, "It would be a great way to finish the season, to bring back a championship for all those in the community who supported us at our new facility this season. We've had amazing crowds, wonderful support, lots of kids at the games. That would mean everything to us."