Baylor's Kelsi Kettler is a big hit
OKLAHOMA CITY -- She thought she touched first base, and that might have been a guess, because the only thing Baylor's Kelsi Kettler knew for certain was where the ball she hit had landed -- just inside the foul pole after barely clearing the left-field fence.
"I never took my eyes off it," she said.
Did she jog around the bases or sprint? Kettler wasn't sure of that, either. She knew her eighth-inning, walk-off home run had beaten Oklahoma State and ace pitcher Kat Espinosa 1-0 in dusty, 90-degree heat at the Women's College World Series on Thursday.
Unlike last year's festival of homers, runs were tough to come by on the tournament's first day. Two of the four games ended 1-0, and only Florida managed more than three runs, stifling Missouri 6-2 in the final game Thursday night.
Baylor left-hander Whitney Canion struck out 10 in a shutout. Kettler's drive was the only extra-base hit of the game, which closed the afternoon session. But for Baylor coach Glenn Moore, it was a joyous sight.
"She's been our most valuable player the last three games," said Moore, who learned that sometimes a tough decision can work in your favor if the right players are involved.
Until freshman catcher Clare Hosack's terrible injury last weekend in Game 1 of Baylor's Super Regional -- she fouled a ball up into her face, breaking several bones -- Kettler had been Hosack's lightly used backup. That's not how she thought it was supposed to play out. Kettler, a sophomore from Alvin, Texas, the hometown of Baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, came to fall practice expecting to be the starter. But Moore gave Hosack the job based on her slightly stronger throwing arm.
"Kelsi got edged out," Moore said.
Hosack did nothing to lose her position, throwing out 13 of 29 runners trying to steal, picking off four more and hitting .253 with six homers. Kettler played only occasionally once the Big 12 season started, sometimes as a designated player or a pinch hitter.
But instead of griping to Moore about his recruiting behind her or asking to transfer, Kettler kept quiet and kept working. The Bears (46-13)scrimmage a lot, and Moore said Kettler spent that time improving her swing and her defense.
"Her biggest asset was her attitude," Moore said. "Kelsi kept the best attitude of any player I've ever had as far as coming to practice every day."
So on Saturday, when Hosack left the field with a towel pressed to her bloody face, Kettler was prepared even though she hadn't caught in a game in more than a month. Stepping in with an 0-2 count, Kettler fearlessly swung at the first pitch and singled -- her first hit since April 10. She went 2-for-3 with an RBI in a 5-1 victory over Georgia and repeated that performance in the Bears' 9-2 Game 3 rout.
Until Thursday, Kettler had one homer all season and two in her college career. Espinosa had allowed only three singles, two of them bloops, until Kettler pulled an 0-2 pitch to drop OSU (42-19) into the losers' bracket.
"My first at-bats weren't necessarily what I wanted," said Kettler, who grounded out and bounced into a fielder's choice. "I went up there thinking, 'Just make contact. Just make contact.' I was down 0-2 and I was still thinking, 'Just make contact. She's going to throw you some waste pitches.'"
Espinosa said she tried to throw a screwball. It rose instead, and Kettler whacked it. "That's really all I can say about that," Espinosa said.
Kettler's teammates, however, couldn't stop talking about it. "She didn't get to play all year, she gets her chance and it means the world," said freshman first baseman Holly Holl. "We all know how hard she works, so seeing her hard work pay off like that is really cool."
Almost unnoticed in the commotion following Kettler's homer was the player who had stepped out on deck to pinch hit for No. 9 hitter Sydney Wilson: Hosack, in a batting helmet fitted with a face cage. Moore said Hosack had been medically cleared to play with the caveat that if something struck her in the face again, she might need surgery.
Baylor will face Alabama at 7 p.m. Friday in the winners' bracket. The go-go Crimson Tide (52-9) lead the nation in stolen bases and aggressively swiped four in five tries to beat Cal 1-0 earlier Thursday. That one failed attempt was Alabama's first in the NCAA tournament, leaving it 27-for-28. Pinch runner Keima Davis, whom Moore called "the fastest kid in the SEC," stole second and third to set up the run, alertly snagging the latter on her own when Cal third baseman Jace Williams drifted in too far while playing for a bunt.
"I just had it in the back of my mind that we were going to make people make plays instead of sitting back, waiting and waiting, which I've done in the past, " said Alabama coach Patrick Murphy, who until Thursday had seen his team go straight to the losers' bracket in all six WCWS appearances since 2000. "That's my fault. We were going to make people make plays to try and get us out. Today, for the most part, it worked."
Standing outside the news conference room, Moore thought out loud about possibly starting Hosack and her superior arm against Alabama. "Clare is who we want to use behind the plate to deal with that," he said.
Then Moore realized what that would mean: sitting his newest most valuable player. What was he, nuts? "It's hard to pull Kelsi right now," he said. "Sorry, Kelsi, you've got to do more."