4 Things You Might Have Missed This Weekend From The World Of Softball
The softball calendar has its share of special stretches. Stretching nearly a week, the Women's College World Series always makes for a memorable show. The annual Mary Nutter Classic in Cathedral City, California, is a feast of softball unlike any other, five fields full of the nation's top college teams in non-stop use for four days.
But for one year only, a case can be made that the sport's most entertaining and important days arrived just as summer came to a close.
On this side of the Atlantic Ocean, National Pro Fastpitch played out its championship in Hoover, Alabama. On the other side of that body of water, Japan and the United States, with plenty of competition from the likes of Australia and Canada, renewed their rivalry in the ISF World Championship in the Netherlands.
The world's best softball players were in action somewhere over the past week. You just had to pick which continent to watch.
So what might you have missed if summer called your attention elsewhere?
1. Cat Osterman still rules the circle.
Granted, she wasn't in the circle when her USSSA Pride defeated the Akron Racers on Saturday afternoon to clinch the NPF championship, but Osterman was the single biggest reason the Pride were on the field and needed just one win in two potential attempts to retain possession of the Cowles Cup, the trophy that accompanies the title.
By the time her perfect season came to a close a day earlier, Osterman had literally done all she could.
The veteran left-hander won both of her starts in the postseason and did so without allowing a run, first against the Pennsylvania Rebellion in a best-of-three semifinal series and then in the opening game of the best-of-three final against the Racers.
The success shouldn't come as a surprise. All told, Osterman started 17 games this season; she won all 17. An additional win in a relief appearance meant she finished with an overall record of 18-0.
No other pitcher in the league won more than 11 games. Only two even reached double-digit wins.
Need more? The Pride were 20-0 in games in which Osterman pitched and 17-15 in games in which she didn't.
Across the regular season and playoffs, Osterman allowed eight earned runs in 113 innings, an ERA of 0.50, and struck out 180 batters.
All of this in a season that almost didn't happen. Entering the 2013 season, Osterman announced her intention to retire at the end of that season. It wasn't until August, not long before last season's title run, that she reversed course.
"Not that I could have ever predicted a season like this," Osterman said shortly before the start of the postseason, "but I'm really glad I was able to experience it and kind of remind myself why I do what I do and enjoy it and be successful at it. I do enjoy it a little bit more knowing it was a season that almost never happened."
Most important this past weekend, she was as good as ever when it mattered most. The Racers (and more on them momentarily) looked like a team gaining momentum by the hour as they advanced to the championship series. As Akron ace Rachele Fico ducked out of trouble inning after shutout inning in the opening game of the final series, it seemed even one run from her teammates might be enough to prolong the magic. But Osterman matched Fico scoreless frame for scoreless frame into the eighth inning. She struck out 12, allowed just two hits and one walk and held the line until GiOnna DiSalvatore's walk-off hit won it for the Pride in the bottom of the eighth.
With the deepest roster in the league, the Pride were never a one-woman team. It must have been nice to have options like Danielle Lawrie and Keilani Ricketts to pitch the clincher while Osterman rested. And it was crucial to have someone like NPF player of the year Andrea Duran, who not only drove in the go-ahead run in the sixth inning of the championship clincher and hit the ball well all weekend, but came up with plays at third base like the one late in the first game against Akron when she fielded a ricochet off Osterman's leg and still made the throw to first.
But for all the talent around her, one woman had a season the likes of which the league had never seen. And that has a lot to do with why the Pride are still NPF champions.
2. Japan still rules the international game.
If perfection and a performance without precedent were the orders of the day in Hoover, the same was true in the Netherlands, where Japan defeated the United States 4-1 in the gold-medal game of the ISF World Championship.
Japan finished the tournament unbeaten and also became the first nation other than the United States to win back-to-back titles in international softball's marquee event. And for pitching ace Yukiko Ueno, a third major international title further cemented her place as one of the sport's all-time legends.
This wasn't an upset as it was when Ueno and Japan defeated the United States to win gold in the 2008 Olympics, the last in which softball was contested. It wasn't a coin flip like it was two years ago in Canada, when the United States beat Japan in a semifinal in the double-elimination event, only to lose the gold-medal game in extra innings against Ueno a day later. This was simply the best team and the best pitcher in international softball playing like it.
Japan and the United States played five times this summer. Team USA won the first meeting in run-rule fashion on home soil in the World Cup of Softball. The Americans then lost the next four meetings across the Canada Cup and World Championship. Add it all up and Japan outscored its archrival 27-12 this summer, including 26-4 in the final four encounters. And Japan only had the services of Ueno for the two meetings in the Netherlands.
One team was simply better than the other. Not by an insurmountable margin, but by enough.
The gold-medal game summed up the margin that separated the teams most of the summer. After losing to Japan in Saturday's semifinal, the United States beat Australia in the bronze-medal game to earn a rematch against Ueno. But where Japan took advantage of three walks, one intentional, in the first inning to push across three runs, the United States managed just one run out of the three innings in which it put its first two batters on base.
With a team of players pulled from the country's professional league, several of whom have international experience that dates at least to the 2008 Olympics, Japan was the sharper team. The Japanese committed just two errors in 10 games in Holland. Paced by Ueno, who was 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA, their pitchers allowed just 11 walks in 66 innings. Team USA, with several active collegians and minimal international experience, committed five errors and allowed 18 walks. It was still good enough to beat most teams, including decisive medal-round wins against Australian and Canadian teams that had tripped up the Americans earlier this summer. It was not quite good enough to beat Japan.
American fans will be left to wonder what might have been if a dream team that meshed the best of the NPF with the best of Team USA took the field in the Netherlands. Japan won't worry too much about the answer. Once again, it will be busy celebrating its place atop the world of international softball.
3. Team USA lost in August but hopes to win in December.
December will bring an International Olympic Committee decision on whether to include baseball and softball in the program for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, perhaps permanently or perhaps on a trial or one-off basis for an event that will take place in a country where those sports are as beloved as they are in the United States.
As the summer got under way, U.S. coach Ken Eriksen talked about what amounted to a two-tiered mission: compete for a world title this year but also prepare what could be the foundation of an Olympic team six years from now. Part of that was pragmatic spin because building for the future was going to be the only option regardless of intent -- USA Softball wasn't going to be able to bring proven veterans like Osterman or Duran back into the fold from NPF, and it lost out to the professional league on younger quick fixes like Keilani Ricketts and Madison Shipman. But for someone like Eriksen, who has a long history in and passion for the international game, it was also genuine.
It was the best lineup he could offer for 2014, but it may also have been the start of something for 2020.
Assuming a midsummer date for competition, Lauren Gibson will be 28 when the 2020 Olympics begin. Raven Chavanne will be 29, Valerie Arioto will be 31 and Michelle Moultrie will turn 30 that July. Those are some of the core members of the old guard on the current team. Not all will be able, let alone willing, to keep their skills tuned for six more years, even if softball did return to the Olympic program and even if that meant a gradual restoration of funding for the national program. But as former Olympian Michele Smith pointed out during the broadcast of the gold-medal game, she made her Olympic debut at about the same age when the sport first appeared in 1996.
And this could be even more of a stepping stone for the youngest members of the team.
Just a junior at Florida, Kelsey Stewart led Team USA with a .500 batting average during the tournament in Holland and was one of three players on the team to post an on-base percentage of .500 or better for the entire summer. In the same class at Alabama, Haylie McCleney ranked third on the team in batting average in the World Championship and trailed only Chavanne in stolen bases for the summer. A senior at Arizona, Kellie Fox finished strong at the plate in August and showed off tremendous potential in the field at shortstop.
Six years is a long time. Should there be an Olympic team, current collegians such as Lauren Chamberlain, Shelby Pendley and Sierra Romero would surely be targets for Team USA, along with players who are only now beginning their time in college. And it would be the height of petulance were USA Softball to forever close the door to the likes of Ricketts and Shipman or NPF-molded standouts such as Michelle Gascoigne and Nerissa Myers or their equivalents in three or four years' time.
Likewise, taking silver-medal solace in a silver lining that is entirely dependent on the IOC is a recipe for disappointment. Team USA's Jolene Henderson said it herself back in June. The players on the American team knew the expectations that came with the uniform. They also believed they had the pieces in place to win gold. They ultimately fell short of that.
But final judgment on what this summer means must wait until December.
4. The Akron Racers didn't let the moment pass them by.
Akron Racers co-owner and general manager Joey Arrietta redid the team's locker room at Firestone Stadium during the offseason. That isn't a shorthand way of saying she directed or ordered a project to redo the locker room.
She redid the locker room, paint roller and all.
It's important to understand what the Racers are to understand what they accomplished in reaching the championship series in Hoover.
And why it's a bittersweet feat because it passed so quickly and will be so difficult to replicate.
One of the oldest women's professional sports teams in the United States, operating since 1999, the Racers are survivors. They don't have a marquee name like Osterman or Monica Abbott. They don't have an impressive new stadium like the Chicago Bandits, instead playing in Firestone Stadium, a venue that while renovated for softball a quarter of a century ago, still feels and looks like the building opened in 1925. It is charming. It is not sleek.
In that respect, it fits its tenants.
The Racers are the kind of franchise whose general manager handles both scouting and stadium DIY projects. They are the franchise that holds on to a handful of veterans such as Kelley Montalvo, Lisa Norris and Taylor Schlopy by sheer dint of will, both that of the players and that of Arrietta. They don't come back for a second, third or fourth season because they are going to win a title, or even a lot of games. But for a certain kind of person, a little stubborn and a lot in love with the game, Akron is irresistible.
NPF teams rarely have the same manager from year to year, but the Racers struck gold this summer with Brian Levin, whose full-time job is coach of Division II Missouri-St. Louis. Arrietta similarly succeeded in scouting. Top draft pick Hannah Campbell grew more comfortable in the circle as the season progressed, but the immediate value came in finding outfielder Jill Barrett in the fourth round, second baseman Ashley Thomas in the fifth and catcher Haley Outon and pitcher Alison Owen after the draft entirely. All played significant roles this season.
A trade brought in Nerissa Myers, who broke out as the league's offensive player of the year. Rachele Fico, last year's No. 1 overall pick, put a difficult rookie season behind her and emerged as a workhorse ace.
Everything came together, and the Racers grew into a team that finished the regular season 24-24 -- eight games better than a season ago -- and hit their stride in the postseason. They surprised the Bandits in the opening game of a best-of-three semifinal, beating Abbott in the process, but then appeared to let an opportunity to advance slip away in a loss the following game. Surely, they couldn't beat Abbott twice in as many days. But they did. Norris got the best of Abbott for a second time, and Jessica Garcia's solo home run was enough for a 1-0 win in the third game and a spot opposite the Pride.
The Hollywood ending evaporated Friday night and Saturday, but the Racers made their stay in Alabama count.
What the Racers did is the best of what the NPF has to offer. What comes next likely will be the worst. It is almost unavoidable. At least one of the veterans at the heart of the team, Charlotte Morgan, will hang up her cleats. She may not be alone. How many of the rookies will find themselves in a position to continue playing when next summer rolls around? Will Fico continue to emerge? Will Thomas and Barrett grow into cornerstones, the way Montalvo and Schlopy did? Or will life understandably take some or all of them in other, considerably more stable and profitable directions?
A franchise like Akron doesn't get a chance to build a team for the long haul. All the Racers get is the moment.
At least they made the most of it this season.