Monday, June 1, 2009 Updated: June 2, 1:48 PM ET
Offense leads the way for Washington
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Washington's run to the championship series at the Women's College World Series was defined by big games in which it had a habit of leaving the run scoring until the last minute. Now the Huskies are one big win from a championship that would define the program, in no small part because they've taken to scoring early and often.
Trying to prolong the Pac-10's stay atop the sport for at least another season, Washington beat Florida 8-0 on Monday in the opening game of the best-of-three title series at Hall of Fame Stadium. The Huskies broke the game open with four runs in the top of the third inning, tacked on two more to chase Gators ace Stacey Nelson after five innings and finished the job with two more runs against Stephanie Brombacher in the sixth inning.
Ashley Charters' two-run home run in the sixth inning Monday put Washington ahead 8-0.
To say the onslaught was unexpected would be an understatement -- one underscored by the sight of fans streaming toward the exits, Florida players lining up for the postgame handshake line and the grounds crew picking up bases at the end of the sixth only to discover that no eight-run mercy rule is in effect for the championship series and the seventh inning had to be played.
It seemed that domination of this sort wasn't something anyone had prepared for in advance.
Other than perhaps the contingent dressed in purple in the first-base dugout.
"I thought we came out offensively ready to go," Washington coach Heather Tarr said.
Danielle Lawrie was undeniably brilliant in becoming the first pitcher to beat the Gators in 30 games and the first to shut them out since she did it in February on another neutral field at a tournament in California. Whether striking out Francesca Enea on what looked like a 68 mph curve that broke so late it seemed to be playing chicken with the bat, or firing a rise ball past Corrie Brooks for the final out, Lawrie looked every bit the ace and no part the tired warrior who had to throw nearly 300 pitches in the previous day's heat.
"Alicia [Blake] did a really great job," Lawrie said of the catcher who calls the game. "It shows you how lucky I am about having a catcher like her. I think I did a decent job at hitting my spots, and the defense did a great job."
But as has been the case so often here, whether or not she came close in throwing her second shutout of the World Series, Lawrie didn't need to be perfect.
The Huskies scored their first four runs with speed. The ball that Florida catcher Kristina Hilberth threw to the fence in center field after Jenn Salling's bases-loaded single, allowing Salling and Kimi Pohlman to complete the four-run play, traveled farther than anything the Huskies had hit to that point. Then they turned to power, with Charters' home run and Morgan Stuart's double, which continued her brilliant week.
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In the first game between the teams back in February, Lawrie threw shutout inning after shutout inning. But it wasn't until the international tiebreaker went into effect in extra innings, allowing each team to start with a runner on second base, when her offense came up with the lone run needed to secure the 1-0 win in nine innings.
On the final day of regional play against Massachusetts, the Huskies' offense couldn't come to Lawrie's support when she faltered in the day's first game. And for inning after inning in the second game, deep into the Bay State night, the offense threatened to write the epitaph on the team's season. Only in the 15th inning did the floodgates finally open, as five runs came across the plate and the Huskies escaped with a 6-1 win.
Through the 51 games they played during the regular season, the Huskies averaged 5.2 runs per game. Since the late-night offensive outburst that finally allowed them to safely ride Lawrie's arm out of Amherst, they have averaged 6.1 runs in seven subsequent games.
In what should be the toughest, tensest seven games of the season, the Huskies are averaging nearly an extra run per game. The team that hasn't seen Seattle since shortly after the NCAA tournament bracket was announced May 10 looks at home at the plate.
"Honestly, our team's really hit a stride here, a really good stride," outfielder Alyson McWherter said. "And it feels like we've just got another game to play. We've been on the road for a long time, so we've been about this [routine of] wake up, eat breakfast, get a little workout in, go play some softball, come home and you do it all over again. So we've been able to sort of keep to the same routine."
A year ago, the Huskies averaged just four runs per game. Returning players made improvements, most notably senior Ashlyn Watson and sophomore Stuart, but the biggest difference has been the addition of so many impact players. Salling has provided big hit after big hit during the postseason. Charters is hitting .500 through five World Series games; Pohlman is hitting .381. Niki Williams already has the World Series record with 10 RBIs, including a team-high three home runs. None took the field for the team last season.
Stacey Nelson, second from right, and Florida made uncharacteristic mistakes in Game 1.
What is now unfolding wasn't always evident during the regular season. Salling arrived late after transferring and struggled to regain the batting touch that made her an All-American at Oregon. Williams suffered through a slump in conference play. Lawrie hit just .247 with 16 RBIs during the regular season. But there was a level of talent lurking in the lineup that awakened to lift the Huskies from the middle of the statistical pack to the lead.
"Great players make great things happen," Tarr said. "And I think we have a good group of really talented athletes that are able to kind of take a season and get better every single pitch they get to see. I know that we're battle-tested, and I think they understand that the season is there to test them.
"And while you might not have the highest batting average ever in the country, what's important is that we peak at the right time and we get the hits when we need them."
Florida is unlikely to go away quietly. Nelson and coach Tim Walton used the word "uncharacteristic" to best describe the team's performance, which to that point included bad defense (two errors), a lack of pitching patience (three walks) and an unthinkable second consecutive off day from Nelson. The only thing that would be a bigger surprise than playing Monday's seventh inning would be a repeat performance from the Gators.
But just as Washington is a better offensive team than its overall numbers make it appear, Florida may not be the favorite its numbers have suggested. The Gators are 63-4 this season but 0-2 against the Huskies.
"I think tomorrow we'll come out with the same attitude and play," McWherter said. "It's just another game. And at the end of the day, it might mean a little bit more, but until the end of the day, it's just the same thing."
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.