- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Judging by the sparse foot traffic along the fairways on the golf course that sits a long home run beyond right field at University Field, Sunday in the middle of Missouri wasn't even fit for 18 holes on the links. The sun beat down without hint of a cloud as temperatures rose to more than 90 degrees and hovered there with dogged determination.
It was the wrong day for Missouri All-American Chelsea Thomas to have to pitch a softball marathon.
And it was the perfect day for LSU to let its pitching relay team race all the way to the Women's College World Series.
Needing one win Sunday to reach Oklahoma City for the first time since 2004 after opening the best-of-three series with an upset win Saturday, unseeded LSU lost 5-1 in 12 innings in Game 2 in the afternoon but bounced back with a 3-1 win in the evening's winner-take-all finale.
The book will show Rachele Fico earned the win that clinched a spot in college softball's biggest event, and Brittany Mack took the loss after going all 12 innings in the day's first game. But the Tigers are going to a place few outside Baton Rouge thought they could when this tournament began because of what both pitchers did with the season on the line, one just as valuable as the other.
"I knew I had won the lottery when I got the job with these two pitchers," LSU first-year coach Beth Torina said. "These two pitchers are special and different than anything you're going to find."
LSU's undoing in the opening game began on Mack's 17th strikeout, oddly enough, a strikeout that extended her career high in perhaps the senior's best performance, given what was at stake. Missouri's Jenna Marston swung through a changeup but ended up on first base with no outs when the pitch hit off the catcher's shin and escaped. Ashley Fleming followed with a bouncing single through the middle and took second on a throw that was too late to prevent Marston from advancing to third base.
LSU intentionally walked Nicole Hudson to load the bases and set up a force play at any base, but the strategy backfired when third baseman Tammy Wray tried for the force at home on Angela Randazzo's grounder, only to have the ball get by the catcher and roll toward the Missouri dugout. Three runs scored on the play and Missouri tacked on one more later in the inning for a 5-1 lead.
It was the kind of backbreaking ending that typically does in the underdog. The only problem was, Missouri's back was already broken.
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine pulled Thomas and let Bailey Erwin get the final three outs in an attempt to give his ace a few extra minutes of rest before the final game, but 165 pitches in the heat, less than 24 hours after she threw 102 pitches, already had taken a toll.
Thomas won the battle against Mack, but the latter won the war.
Inning after inning, she kept Missouri at bay and forced Thomas back onto the field. Win or lose, Mack didn't have to pitch again. Thomas did.
"I thought she was going to be really difficult for them to hit," Torina said of Mack. "It's so hard to prepare for both, and I felt they would have had to spend the majority of their time preparing for Rachele since she had the higher number of innings and things on our staff. I really thought Brittany would be successful today. She sure kept us in it long enough. Chelsea was just so strong that first game. She really was tough for us to deal with."
Picking a starting pitcher was the easy part for Torina when she was hired as LSU's head coach last summer. The program wasn't in shambles by any means, but it had endured some undeniably tumultuous times. Legendary coach Yvette Girouard surprised many with her in-season announcement that she would retire at the end of the 2011 campaign. The school appeared to make a major power play to replace her, luring Alabama coach Patrick Murphy away from a rival he built into a national power, but Murphy reconsidered shortly before taking over in Baton Rouge and returned to Tuscaloosa.
A former standout player at Florida in the early days of SEC softball last decade, Torina had just four years of experience as a head coach at Florida International, but she had the luster of a rising star from her work at FIU and as an assistant working with a roster of Olympians and recent college stars for National Pro Fastpitch's USSSA Pride. A team that might have been skeptical, given all the tumult, instead responded to her energy.
"Our team embraced our new coaching staff with open arms from the get-go," Fico said. "We changed a lot of things and we committed ourselves to their system. We did everything they've asked from us, we went above and beyond [in] working to make things right and do things their way. It did take a little bit to get used to that and to be effective that way, but once we started being successful with it, it just made things easier."
Fico knows of what she speaks. One of the more highly touted recruits in recent seasons after a prep career in Connecticut that earned her national attention, she was very good in her first two seasons, but not quite the phenomenon some envisioned. Torina made a point to credit Girouard for all of Mack's polish and fight, but the numbers back up the idea that Fico and Torina clicked in a way that lifted the junior to new heights.
"I think she's really gotten it together," Torina said. "She and I work really well together. She's got a great head on her shoulders, and she really competes differently than anyone I've ever been around."
She also had a little help Sunday. Fico ran into early trouble in the finale, loading the bases in the third inning and only escaping courtesy of a highlight-reel throw from Simone Heyward to complete a double play when Missouri's Corrin Genovese tried to tag up on a fly ball in the center fielder's direction. In the bottom of the inning, Heyward followed that effort with a double over a drawn-in outfield to score three runs. She was the last batter Thomas would face, the fatigue showing as she set up Heyward's heroics by loading the bases with two walks and a hit batter.
That was all Fico needed. After his team lost Saturday, Earleywine said he liked their chances if they faced Fico again, suggesting his hitters had solved her. Handed the lead Sunday, she set the Tigers down in order in the fourth inning. Then she did it again in the sixth inning, striking out Ashley Fleming, the best hitter in the series. Only an Ashley Langoni error in the seventh stopped Fico from making it nine out of nine to close out the win.
If Missouri solved her, it didn't show in the two hits and zero walks she allowed.
Among the first to hug the winning pitcher was the one who set it up in a loss earlier that day, just as Fico was the first to greet Mack after the latter struck out the side in the top of the first inning in the first game to set a tone for the day.
"We definitely, definitely feed off each other," Mack said. "And especially being two completely different pitchers, it's an unbelievable matchup. Any time you throw Fico into a game and then me, or me first and then her, hitters have a really hard time adjusting. But me and her, she's my best friend on the team. On and off the field, we just get along so great, whether it's just with each other or whenever we help each other on the field."
LSU scored 10 runs in three games against Missouri, an offensive explosion by the standards of a team that finished last in the SEC in batting average, runs and home runs. But this team never needed to score many runs to win. It just needed to score some. Mack and Fico would take care of the rest.
So while the rest of the softball world will begin wondering anew how this team will compete against the likes of California next week, LSU grows ever more confident that it already can.
"They can be as surprised as they want to be," Heyward said. "We knew all along how good we were. We had it in ourselves, and we knew that. It was just up to us to show people that we could do it. So I think they can be as surprised as they want. I'll leave it up to them."
We have time to decide how surprised we want to be. The calendar is turning to June, but LSU is still playing softball.
Fico and Mack are still passing the baton.
LSU is going to the World Series because of what both pitchers did with the season on the line Sunday, one just as valuable as the other.