Words that I never expected to have come out of my mouth during a softball game: "Ok, Katie. Go up there and strike out!"
As you might expect, there's a story involved.
We actually have a pretty decent bunch of players on Katie's softball team. They've played in some nasty bad luck. There's really only been one game that they lost badly; the rest of their games have been close and could have been won with a bit of luck. The fact that they were 2-4 going into today's game, well, they could just as easily have been 4-2. Luck has not been with them.
So today, we were playing a night game (6:15 start) over at the big field in Niles with the lights. This is a pretty cool thing. It was also a pretty cool night, which was a welcome change after the miserably hot weather we had last weekend. The girls were in good spirits and the coaches were all relaxed and ready for the girls to have a good time, win or lose. Coach Tina had decided to give some of the girls who hadn't pitched in a while a chance to go at it and we figured we'd just save our best pitcher until the third inning and see how things were going.
Oh, yes. And we were playing one of the best teams in the league. I'm not sure if they're undefeated, but they are sure as heck going to the playoffs. (We aren't. You need to be one of the top four teams out of eleven and the best we could possibly manage would be a .500 record.)
We were the visiting team, so we had first at-bats. And the girls went out and hit. Four hits, one walk, and three strikeouts in the first inning let the girls jump out to a 4-0 lead. Unfortunately, we gave it back in the bottom of the first, giving up five runs and hitting the runs-per-inning limit to trail 5-4.
Three hits, three walks, and three Ks in the second put us back on top 7-5, but the girls gave up three runs in the bottom of the second (with only one walk from our next pitcher!) and we were again trailing 8-7.
The first three batters reached on walks in the third, but a great play by the opponent's first baseman who stabbed a liner and tagged first produced a double play that took all of the steam out of the inning and left us still trailing 8-7, as we eventually left the bases loaded without scoring.
At this point, we brought on our team's best pitcher. She has usually been pitching the 1st and 4th innings for our team, but we had decided to try her in the 3rd (and possibly 4th) inning today, because she's had some problems heating it back up after two innings not pitching. She struck out three, pitching around a hit-by-pitch and a walk, so we were still down 8-7.
And then things got weird.
See, the thing about softball for young girls is that there are all sorts of rules modifications that are intended to prevent games from getting out of hand. One of these is the five-run limit per inning. When the end of the game is nigh, the managers and the umpires are supposed to agree before the first pitch of the inning is thrown that this is the final inning and that the five-run limit on runs per inning has now been lifted, so that your team can score unlimited runs. In theory, then, we are now back to the regular rules, so no matter how far behind you are, you can still have a chance to win.
We'd gotten burned on this earlier in the season, when we found ourselves trailing by six in what was obviously the last inning, but we hadn't agreed that it was the last inning before the inning started, so there was no way we could win. What a mess!
Having gotten burned by this, I had talked to Coach Tina and we'd constructed armor against getting burned again. I was now in charge of watching the clock. Since games have a hard two-hour time limit in this league, if we finish an inning and we're more than one hour and fifteen minutes into the game, we check the pace of play and try to determine whether or not we're likely to finish more than one inning before the end of the game; if not, we go out and start talking about "the last inning". It's worked so far. :)
So after the third inning, I check the clock. We're at 1:25 elapsed time. The rules also say that you can't start a new inning after 1:45 elapsed time, so we're clearly in the hot zone for the final inning. Tina heads out to talk to the umpire and the other coach, we agree that it's unlimited runs time, and we are now off to the races to see if we can pull this game out of the fire.
Katie is batting second in the order and leading off the top of the fourth. She's had two hits so far in the game. This time, she turns on the pitch and hits a hot liner to the shortstop. It pops out of her glove, up into the air behind her, she turns -- and catches the ball. One out. The best ball that Katie's hit all night and probably the best ball that anyone has hit all night. Ah, well. Sometimes BABIP is your friend, and sometimes not. (BABIP = Batting Average on Balls In Play, if you're not familiar with this stat.)
But our next batter singled and stole second. And then the girl after her, Kim, hit a hot grounder that got past everyone and into right field.
Did you know that we have had one inch of rain since the beginning of August? The grass is short and dry. That ball rolled forever, like a billiard ball on felt. And Kim came charging around the bases as fast as she could run and beat the throw back into the infield for a home run.
Good guys lead, 9-8.
This was followed by a double, a walk, a single, a walk, a single, a single, and a walk forcing in yet another run. We now lead 13-8.
And the elapsed time clock for the game was now at 1:43. The game will end at 2:00, no matter what. If the inning is not complete, the score will revert to the last complete inning.
That would be when we were trailing 8-7.
We were back around to the top of the order. Kaitlyn and then Katie, and there was only one out.
"Kaitlyn, Katie, you need to go up there and swing at everything and strike out, or we are going to lose," I said. It was like the entire College of Coaches -- the manager and the four coaches -- standing there explaining to them that we were up against the time limit and it was time to make an out for the sake of the team.
Did I mention that sometimes softball for little girls bears very little resemblance to real baseball -- or softball? :)
Two strikeouts were recorded in quick order and we ran our girls out onto the field to start the bottom of the inning as quickly as possible, with less than fifteen minutes left to play. We just needed to get three outs before giving up five (or six) runs -- and before time ran out!
Kaitlyn is our best pitcher and we sent her back out to pitch the fourth inning. Unfortunately, one of her pitches hit their leadoff batter in the foot, sending her down to first. And this was bad, because if you hit two batters in one inning, the pitcher has to be replaced. (If she hits three in the game, she is done for the game, but we were in the last inning, so it was all the same at that point.)
Their runner stole second. And the next batter hit a short pop fly to little sure-handed Emma, who grabbed the ball for the first out. Sadly, she didn't manage to get it to second before the runner got back, but it was the first of the three outs that we needed.
And then Kaitlyn hit the next batter in the foot. Oops. She was now done for the night.
We had an extra player, having called up a sub, so we had held out Morgan for the fourth inning and had sent her to warm up. Well, now she needed to be warm.
And she walked the next three batters. It was now 13-10, bases loaded.
And Morgan struck out the next batter. Two outs.
And the next batter grounded the ball to second. Back to little sure-handed Emma, the smallest girl on our team. She flipped the ball underhanded to Mia, Mia caught it, and the throw beat the runner.
Three outs. Final score: 13-10.
And we went nuts. :)
It took a minute or so to get the girls lined up to shake hands with the other team. But we managed it.
It was a heckuva game...
I'm not sure that all of it was softball. But as I told Katie after the game as I thanked her for taking one for the team by striking out intentionally, sometimes you have to be good, sometimes you have to be lucky, and sometimes you have to be smart.
We had managed all three at the same time.
One game left in the season, next Saturday.
We'll see how it goes. :)