Crazy comeback sends Baylor to semis
OKLAHOMA CITY -- All you need to know about the scale of improbability on what Baylor accomplished on Saturday evening in ASA Hall of Fame Stadium is that the rules of college softball dictate that a game end if one team is ahead by eight or more runs after five innings.
It is known, at least colloquially, as the mercy rule. As in, say mercy and you can make it stop.
With two outs in the top of the sixth inning of a Women's College World Series elimination game, No. 14 Kentucky led No. 13 Baylor 7-0 and had the eighth and potentially decisive run on second base. One more hit would have pushed the Lady Bears to the brink when they came to bat in the bottom of the inning.
Eight runs and not all that many minutes later, even if it surely felt like an eternity in the Bluegrass State, Baylor completed a comeback for the ages when Kentucky catcher Griffin Joiner's throw to first base on an Ari Hawkins bunt glanced off the batter's back, bounded into right field and allowed Kaitlyn Thumann to sprint home from third base for an 8-7 win.
Three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. Four more in the bottom of the seventh inning, capped by Robin Landrith's two-out double to drive in two runs and tie the game. And one run that mattered most, in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Behind to such a degree that Baylor coach Glenn Moore later conceded the only Moore in the dugout with complete confidence the team would win was his son, Baylor now gets to play softball in June.
Put it another way: Baylor won a 13-inning elimination game on a walk-off home run on Saturday in the 2011 Women's College World Series, and that now isn't the most dramatic postseason Saturday in program history.
"I won't forget that one until I forget who I am," the elder Moore said afterward.
The rally roared to life in just three innings like the thunderstorms that spring to life in the wide-open Oklahoma sky, but it also was a long time in the making.
The narrative of Baylor's entire season understandably centers on Whitney Canion, the sixth-year pitcher who lost two seasons to injury, came back to win Big 12 pitcher of the year honors this season and said herself this week that she cruised right past being team mom to become the team grandmother.
But handed the ball against the Wildcats on Saturday night, Canion couldn't find the Hollywood moment. She couldn't duplicate her effort from that marathon game against Missouri in the 2011 World Series, when she pitched 13 shutout innings and allowed just two hits.
After a good first inning, when her changeup bucked the knees of a couple of Kentucky batters, Canion gave up two home runs in the top of the second inning, one to Emily Gaines and one to Ginny Carroll, with a Krystal Smith double off the wall, sandwiched between the blasts. That was enough for Moore to go to the bullpen. He said he told her to be ready in case the time came to re-enter, as rules allow, but she watched the entirety of the drama from the dugout.
"When they hit balls out that were in the eyes, when they hit a ball out that was halfway down to the ankles one time, I don't know that I can remember ever seeing that," Moore said. "Especially not off of Whitney when she's throwing mid-60s. ... It was as if they knew where the pitch was going to be thrown. I'm sure they didn't, but they were fouling off pitches that were in the eyes constantly. I haven't seen anything like that.
"It was ... almost as if we were destined to lose that game."
This was Kentucky's postseason in condensed form, a resilient team that alternately charmed and impressed and came up with every big hit it needed. Carroll had two hits in the entire month of May but drove in five runs in the same span -- all against UCLA or Baylor. Krystal Smith entered the Los Angeles super regional hitting .157 and raised her average nearly 30 points after that point.
And Baylor had to counteract that mojo without Canion.
It turned first to Liz Paul, but the deficit expanded to seven runs as Kentucky scored in the fourth and sixth innings. On the verge of run-rule territory for the second time in three days, Moore gave the ball to Heather Stearns.
Where Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said she regretted having effectively painted herself into a corner by relying so heavily on ace Kelsey Nunley down the stretch, leaving her other options too untested to use when things began to go awry, Moore rolled those same dice. A night earlier, he texted Stearns to tell her she would start Saturday's first elimination game against Florida State, her first appearance since May 11 and first start since May 3.
"I did not have any clue," Stearns said. "I assumed Whitney probably would, but I was excited. It was kind of a shock, but I was really, really pumped to go."
She wasn't perfect against Florida State, but she kept the Seminoles silent until her teammates could come up with a five-run lead, saved Canion a bunch of pitches in the process and earned a win. Against Kentucky, she set the side down in order in the seventh and eighth to prevent any energy from leaking out of the comeback.
"I tried to hit my spots," Stearns said. "They were very, very aggressive. All game they were aggressive. And honestly, at that point I was going off adrenaline and hitting my spots. [Catcher Clare Hosack] was talking to me back there and, you know, when my team is scoring seven runs in the last two innings, you have to come out and throw the game. Because your team is backing you like that, you have to go out there and do it for them, too."
That second part of the rally was even longer in the making. It might not be able to do it in the same situation the next five dozen times it tried, but the first requirement to erasing a seven-run deficit in two innings is a lineup that can score seven runs. Baylor's home stadium is both one of softball's crown jewels and decidedly unfriendly territory for power hitters, a high wall and unfavorable wind patterns making it all the more a pitcher's park. Combined with Moore's own fondness for speed and defense, it is a program that at times in recent seasons struggled to score.
That wasn't the case this season. Not only does the team have three players with double-digit home runs, it has power up and down the lineup from players such as Hawkins, who struggled to get around on Nunley's inside offerings early in the game but led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a home run -- an inning after she reached on a bunt single and scored the rally's first run.
This lineup has the ability to put up crooked numbers. The rally wasn't nearly as big, but Baylor found the runs it needed to erase a deficit in the second game of its super regional at Georgia, too.
"I think it speaks to the offense that we have," Moore said. "We've seen that throughout the year, we've put up some big numbers. But to do it against a pitcher that was as dominating as Nunley was for that length of time, to be able to stay that composed and focused, it's just a tough game."
And for all of that, the odds of Baylor doing what it did had to be minuscule. Teams just don't erase seven-run deficits in the final two innings. Not here. Not really anywhere.
"Any team down seven runs, you're going to get frustrated, you're going to be upset," Landrith said.
In the end, it wasn't one of the big hitters who came to the plate with the season on the line. It wasn't Canion who saved the day, or even Stearns. It was Landrith, a part-time starter with just six extra-base hits all season. She nearly ended the game with her swing in the seventh, settling for a game-tying double on what looked like a home run off the bat. All good plans need a bit of magic.
"You know, Robin's hit has to stand out to me," Stearns said of trying to separate out the moments that made the comeback. "She stepped in there -- she's gotten at-bats here and there all season, but her coming in there and getting that double, that is really what stands out to me."
In the end, Baylor wasn't at the mercy of anything but its own hand.
While the top of Baylor's order did memorable work late to earn a place in Sunday's semifinal against No. 5 Florida, the top of No. 1 Oregon's lineup did enough in one big inning to propel the Pac-12 champion into Sunday's second semifinal pairing against Alabama. Both the Lady Bears and Ducks need two wins Sunday to reach the best-of-three championship series, while the Gators and Crimson Tide each need just one win to advance.
Effectively silenced a day earlier in a loss against Florida and again unable to get things going in the first inning of Saturday's elimination game against Oklahoma despite a leadoff single from Courtney Ceo, the top of the Oregon order struck in the third inning. With a runner already on first, No. 2 hitter Alyssa Gillespie walked and No. 3 hitter Janie Takeda doubled to drive in the game's first run. Both then came around to score on Kailee Cuico's double.
Takeda then delivered an RBI double in the top of the seventh to provide the final margin in a 4-2 win.
The Florida game was the exception this season for a trio that is as devilish to deal with as any in the college game. All three can use their speed to reach base by means of the short game, but all three can also drive balls into the gaps. An opponent might stop one. It might stop two. But it is very difficult to stop all three. And if even one of them reaches base, any base, it sets things in motion for a steady stream of run producers who follow, Cuico included.
"Our job as lefties is to get on base and any way that we can do that, whether it's a walk, a hit, a bunt, the long ball, getting hit by pitch, it doesn't matter," Ceo said this week. "The three of us just talk about that, about doing our job. That's the bare minimum -- as long as we get on first base, that's our job. We look at ourselves as the lefties; we call ourselves triple threats, not slappers or bunters. We're triple threats."
As a result of their production and a tag-team pitching effort from Cheridan Hawkins and Karissa Hovinga, who struck out Lauren Chamberlain in a brief relief stint in the seventh inning, the Ducks still have an opportunity to put the Pac-12 in the championship series for the first time in three seasons, a brief drought in the grand scheme of things but glaring for a conference that was represented in every championship round between 1987 and 2012. More importantly, the Ducks can put themselves in the final round for the first time in program history.
The most recent team to win two in a row on Sunday at the World Series was Florida in 2011, and it did so at Alabama's expense.