Gretchen says that the end of today's semifinal softball game was like the end of a movie and that I have to write it up for my blog. I, of course, will attempt to comply.
But I don't have the scorecard. All that I have is my faulty memory. It will have to suffice.
We resumed the game at both teams' home field, Chippewa Park, after the game was called on account of darkness after seven innings with the score tied 2-2. I don't know how well the managers and coaches of the other team slept, but comparing notes on our side, we discovered that none of us had slept well and we were all up early.
There was barely enough chalk left in the locked supplies bin to chalk the infield foul lines -- certainly not enough for the batter's box! And why should there be? The season was over and there would be no more games played there.
Well, there was another theory blown to heck. :)
One of our co-managers, Laura, had called in and made sure that we would have an umpire for the game. He showed up shortly before the scheduled start at 10 AM. We compared notes on the rules -- a darned fine idea after yesterday's game, where a critical play turned on an extremely fine interpretation of an ambiguous rule (which was, in my opinion, ultimately called correctly) -- and we were off!
Both teams had blown through all the available innings on their best pitchers, since pitchers at this level are limited to three innings per game. So it was into the depth on the pitching staff. Happily, we had some. Sofia had pitched a good seventh the previous night and proceeded to give us a good eighth and ninth inning. Both teams had scoring chances, but neither scored.
I had told the girls before they started today that all they had to do was play good defense and they would win, because they were good hitters and they would eventually hit. And the defense on both sides was being just good enough. Coach Michelle had set our lineup with the best infield defense, which put tall, reliable McKayla at first, quick Katie S. at second, and strong-armed Elia and my Katie at short and third. Outs were recorded in all manner of ways. Katie snagged a foul pop-up at one point. At another time, a hard shot bounced off her and into foul territory. The third-base coach for the other team called for the runner who had just advanced from first to second to run to third. And Katie recovered, grabbed the ball, and tagged her out easily.
I recall too that the opposing pitcher caught a short pop-up on the infield with two out and the bases loaded when I came in for coach pitch in the bottom of the ninth. And their catcher caught a foul pop. There were good defensive plays all around.
Came the tenth inning and we knew that Emma would need to come in to pitch, Sofia having exhausted her available innings. I had looked at the lineup and had realized that we could keep the infield defense intact by rotating up the middle, bringing Emma in from center to pitch, moving Sofia from pitch to catch, and sending Ava from catch out to center. So that's what I told them to do, not having actually consulted with Coach Michelle first. (I apologized later.)
I don't remember exactly what happened in the top of the tenth, but we got through it without giving up a run, although there were at least a couple of base-runners. I remember the bottom of the tenth pretty vividly. :)
I need to pause to explain to you about "coach pitch". At this level of our local girls softball, when a pitcher gets a four ball count on the batter, instead of issuing a walk, the opposing coach is called out to pitch. The coach can throw three pitches; the batter gets up to three swings, getting as many swings as they had strikes left on them in the count. So if the count was 4-2, then the coach throws three pitches and the batter gets one swing. A foul ball on the last strike is a do-over.
Watching Katie and later Julie as well play at this level last year, I reached a conclusion about coach pitch: a large percentage of the difference between the teams can come down to whether or not the coach can throw hittable pitches. And my theory about hittable pitches is pretty simple: not too fast, minimal arc, and in the strike zone. And please do not bounce the pitch on the plate, because that is going to require a miracle to hit.
(Come to think of it, one of our girls actually did hit a pitch from the opposing pitcher on the bounce today. I forget which girl... :) )
So I don't want to buzz the ball in there, but I do want it moving fast enough so that it's not dropping rapidly as it crosses the plate. It's a fine line. But I am an old junk ball softball pitcher from my days of pickup softball in grad school, so I can usually get two of the three pitches in the right zone. And that means I can usually avoid striking out my own team. :)
I had started the season handling the coach pitch, then had been moved to first base coach, then I got bronchitis and lost my voice, and went to keep score on the bench. As scorer, I used fifty years of experience at filling out a scorecard to help us position the girls better on the second time through the order, because girls at this level have a strong tendency to hit the ball to the same zone all of the time.
And now, after a long journey, I was back at coach pitch again for the end of the season and the playoffs. I hadn't had to do a lot of coach pitch in the current game, because the opposing pitchers were throwing a lot of strikes. So were ours. And the girls on both sides were hitting or striking out off the opposing pitchers, keeping the coaches on the bench, which is almost always the best thing for the team on defense.
Katie was leading off the bottom of the tenth and worked the count to 4-1. I got the ball and walked out to the mound. (I am too old to "trot".)
"Make it good, Dad," Katie called out. "You know where I like it."
And I tossed it in and got it to a good enough spot. Katie hit a hard grounder through the hole between first and second base, past the drawn-in right fielder onto the outfield grass. With the ball in the outfield, runners can advance until an infielder controls the ball on the infield. And I shouted out, "Go two!"
(Yes, I know this is the job of the first base coach. I am, however, probably the loudest person on the field when I don't have bronchitis. :) )
And Katie zipped into second. So we had a runner on second, nobody out, and now the force was off at second. Force plays at second and third are the bane of the offense at this level, as many hard-hit balls that would put you on base with no one on are much more easily converted into force outs.
Next up was McKayla, one of the two authentic power-hitters on the team. Earlier in the game, McKayla had doubled and Katie had scored the first run of the game from first base, because Katie is fast. Any sort of hit into the outfield was likely to win the game right here.
And McKayla got under the pitch and lofted a pop-up toward second. Katie took a few steps off the base. A crowd of girls converged.
The ball hit the ground.
Katie, listening to Coach Mike at third, scooted over there. McKayla was safe at first. First and third, nobody out. No force at home, and now the infield will have to come home with the throw, because Katie is the winning run.
Alondra was up next. She got in some good cuts and fouled a couple of pitches off impressively, but ultimately struck out swinging. One out.
Elia strode to the plate. Elia has more raw power than any other girl on the team and owns the team's only homer of the season. I badly wanted to get the chance to coach pitch to her.
I didn't get the chance. She found a pitch to her liking and lined it to short left field. It was hit hard enough that it bounced off the chest of the girl who tried to catch it. Katie scooted home, avoiding the catcher who was standing on the plate.
I was standing right behind the plate on our side of the fence and I wasn't sure she had actually touched the plate as she danced across it.
"Touch home," I told her.
She went back, tagged the plate, and the umpire signaled safe.
I guess I did have one thing left to do in the game, even if it wasn't coach pitch. :)
The game was over. The Lightning won, 3-2, and are advancing to the finals tomorrow to play the first place team from Niles. They get to play in Bandits Stadium, the professional fast-pitch park over in Rosemont, which will be a kick.
But it was a great game. And either team could have won. They both played their hearts out.
We'll see how it goes tomorrow. One of the other coaches on our team characterized this game as being like the U.S. vs. Russia semifinal hockey game some years ago -- it was the game that both teams really wanted to win.
The one thing that I am certain of: this was the longest game in the league this year. :)