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Friday, August 24, 2012
Kristen Butler powers Chicago Bandits

By Graham Hays

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Kristen Butler's teammates knew the ball she hit was gone. The opposing outfielders knew it was gone and barely moved. The fans at the Ballpark at Rosemont knew it was gone. It's possible air-traffic controllers at nearby O'Hare knew it was gone.

The one person unsure was Butler herself.

"Honestly, I didn't even know it was out," Butler said of her tape-measure two-run homer, which sparked the defending-champion Chicago Bandits to an 11-1 win over the Carolina Diamonds in their National Pro Fastpitch playoff opener Thursday night. "I know that sounds weird, but I hit it and I was just running."

The NPF named Bandits ace Monica Abbott pitcher of the year after she led the league by wide margins in wins and strikeouts. But on a night when Abbott and the USSSA Pride's Cat Osterman, two pitchers a world apart from their peers and the aces of the tournament's top two seeds, lived up to the billing at either end of the semifinal doubleheader, Butler's blast was the biggest blow in a barrage by the Bandits that opened their title defense in style, led by a player whose hot start and midseason slump this year mirrored that of the Bandits offered a suggestion that the defending champions are more than merely Abbott.

The Diamonds actually scored first on a long home run by Bianca Mejia in the top of the second inning. It was the first home run allowed by Abbott since July 22, a stretch of 52 innings, but she soon dispelled any notion that she might be in trouble against the lineup that led the league in homers. Abbott struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning and fanned eight of the final 12 she faced before leaving after five innings. Under the weather before the game and victimized on a changeup for the home run, Abbott listened to longtime catcher Shannon Doepking.

Kristen Butler
Kristen Butler and the Bandits showed in Thursday night's 11-1 win that they might have enough offense to repeat as champions.

"Let's just pound the zone and make them swing the bat," Abbott recalled her catcher's advice after Mejia's shot.

The Bandits erased the deficit in the bottom of the second when Amber Patton scored from second on an error after Doepking worked an 0-2 count into a walk with two outs to prolong the inning against Diamonds ace Katie Burkhart.

The big bats arrived in the bottom of the third. Megan Wiggins and Alisa Goler led off with back-to-back doubles to make it 2-1. That set the table for Butler, who sent a 1-1 inside pitch deep over the left-field fence, giving the Bandits a 4-1 lead and control of the game.

Butler hit seven home runs in the regular season, tied for fifth in the league, but had hit just one since July 1. In the midst of that power drought was an 0-for-18 slump that dropped her batting average from .315 to .237. A series of multihit games brought her back to .285 by the end of the season, but the extra-base hits remained missing until Thursday night.

"For whatever reason, I changed my approach at the plate," Butler said. "I wasn't being as aggressive as I should have been, and so I was getting myself with two strikes a lot and trying to hit with two strikes. Obviously, when you're hitting with two strikes, your success goes down.

"That was something I was fighting through mentally. It's a mental approach more than physical. Really, at times I felt like my swing was the best it had been all summer but just my mental approach needed to get a little better."

Butler's slump came at a time when the Bandits lost contact with the first-place Pride and found themselves in a fight for the No. 2 seed.

The 2006 SEC Player of the Year as a senior at Florida, where she was a thorn in the side of a young star at Tennessee named Monica Abbott, Butler played four seasons in the NPF with the Akron Racers, earning all-league honors and hitting 27 home runs. As she looked ahead to her impending marriage and a desire to start a college coaching career, she left the league after the 2009 season and spent parts of the past two summers on a touring team with a less-demanding schedule.

Now married and an assistant coach at Charleston Southern, Butler felt the urge to give the NPF another try and reached out to Bandits owner Bill Sokolis, who was all too happy to welcome her to the team.

Butler is the only top-five hitter in the Bandits' order who wasn't part of last season's championship, and her right-handed bat provides more balance.

"The main thing is a right-handed bat. We don't have many of those," said Bandits associate coach Mike Steuerwald. "It's nice having her in there. Even when she was struggling middle of the season, she's a power threat on any pitch. Even balls she hasn't hit well this year have ended up going out."

There was an offensive chasm between the Pride, which coasted to a 4-0 win against the Racers in the evening's second game, and the rest of the league. The Pride hit .297 and scored 255 runs in the regular season. The Bandits were second with a .256 average and 199 runs.

But counting on Abbott alone isn't going to be enough to win back-to-back titles, particularly with Osterman pitching so well. The Bandits need Wiggins, Goler, Butler, Patton and others to look like the offense they were Thursday night against a quality pitcher.

"Monica is a phenomenal pitcher; she's one of the best in the world," Butler said. "You want to support her. And by scoring six or seven runs, Monica doesn't have that pressure of where she has to strike everybody out."

Already a professional before some of her teammates had attended junior prom, Butler wasted little time this season proving she still had the bat to cut it after two years away.

"I expect even more out of myself," she said. "But yes, I'm excited that I'm still able to hold my own. In the past two years that I've been gone, this league has grown tremendously in competition and in talent. I noticed that a lot last year -- how much more competitive and how much more talented the players have gotten on all four teams."

Thanks in no small part to Butler and a ball that seemed like it might never land, the Bandits did their best Thursday night to show they have an offense to defend their title.

As the best-of-three semifinals continue, the Bandits face the Diamonds and the Pride face the Racers again Friday night.