Five questions for NPF playoffs

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Chicago Bandits' Monica Abbott, left, and USSSA Pride's Cat Osterman have put up almost identical numbers from the mound this season.

The 10th season of National Pro Fastpitch hits the finish line this weekend at the Chicago-area Ballpark at Rosemont. All four of the league's teams participate in the postseason, but quite a lot about the tournament has changed since this time a year ago. How do the playoffs work, and what should fans look for as professional softball crowns a champion? Those are among questions answered below.

1. How will the new format affect the playoffs?

Let's start with hoping the new look produces a champion. In response to last year's debacle in which the final day of play was rained out and the season concluded sadly short on closure, National Pro Fastpitch adopted a streamlined playoff format.

The team with the best record in the regular season, in this case the hometown Chicago Bandits, gets a bye directly into the best-of-three championship series that begins Friday night and concludes with the second and, if necessary, third games on Saturday. To determine the opponent in that championship series, the Akron Racers and New York-New Jersey Comets will play an elimination game Thursday night, and the winner of that game will play the USSSA Pride on Friday for the right to play the Bandits.

The change cuts down on the number of games squeezed into the weekend and opens up Sunday as a potential rain date. Those are good things. It also makes the No. 1 seed significantly more important (not necessarily a bad thing, either, given the value it imparted the regular season and the decisive regular-season finale between the Bandits and Pride). The reward for the No. 1 seed last year was playing the No. 4 seed instead of the No. 3 seed in identical best-of-three semifinal series. Now Bandits ace Monica Abbott doesn't need to throw a pitch until the championship series.

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Chicago Bandits outfielder Megan Wiggins is the most complete player in the game right now, and nobody has figured out how to stop her.

On the flip side, the Bandits' opponent in the first game of the championship series will be playing its second game in a matter of hours. The Pride can either gamble and start a pitcher other than ace Cat Osterman in the semifinal against the Comets or Racers, in hopes of keeping her fresh for the Bandits later that night, or play it safe, pitch her and lose her for the championship series opener. Given the potential randomness of the result of a single game of softball, it could be an uncomfortable gamble to make.

2. Monica Abbott or Cat Osterman?

Spoiler alert: There is no answer at the end of this answer. But it's a fun question. Without taking anything away from the Racers or Comets, because either team making the final would be a fascinating story in its own right, neutral fans have to hope for at least one meeting between Abbott and Osterman in the championship series.

Japanese ace Yukiko Ueno is still going strong in the international game and deserves at least a mention in the conversation, but the evidence this summer points to Abbott and Osterman as the two best pitchers in the world right now. That means two of the best who ever lived are still pitching about as well as they ever have.

The two aces could hardly be any more equal this season. Consider the overall numbers:

Abbott: 17-4, 0.93 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 10.3 strikeouts per seven innings
Osterman: 17-4, 1.06 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 11.8 strikeouts per seven innings

Now consider that the rest of the league had a 4.57 ERA. These two are playing a different game.

Abbott had better control; Osterman made up for a higher walk rate with more strikeouts (although it's worth noting that her WHIP doesn't reflect an additional 17 hit batters, six more than any other pitcher this season).

But something interesting happens when you look at the stats against each other's teams:

Abbott against the Pride: 1.39 ERA, 0.96 WHIP
Osterman against the Bandits: 0.89 ERA, 0.92 WHIP

Abbott was still great, just not quite as great as she was in other games. On the other hand, Osterman's ERA actually improved when she faced the team that led the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

3. Who is the most dominant player in the series?

In part because they cancel each other out, there is a case to be made that it is neither Abbott nor Osterman.

The player who is one-of-a-kind this season is Bandits outfielder Megan Wiggins.

It's an unfortunate comparison in some ways because of all the baggage it entails, but forget the supposed chemical element of Barry Bonds' success and consider just the numbers he put up. At the height of his dominance in 2004, Bonds posted a 1.422 OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. The next closest competitor in the National League was Todd Helton with a 1.088 OPS. That's a difference of .334 between first and second.

Entering the playoffs, Wiggins leads NPF with a 1.312 OPS. Pride second baseman Ashley Charters is next among players with at least 100 plate appearances with a 0.999 OPS, a difference of .313 between first and second.

Wiggins just completed a regular season in which she was essentially as dominant relative to her competition as someone who many argue was the most dominant baseball hitter since Babe Ruth, if not the most dominant ever. And thankfully for softball fans, there's no moral dilemma when it comes to appreciating this performance.

Wiggins is the most complete player in the game at the moment, and nobody has figured out how to stop her.

4. Can Olivia Galati prove she's the most valuable rookie?

It is an interesting race for rookie bragging rights. The Bandits can offer a quartet of candidates in pitchers Michelle Gascoigne and Andi Williamson, utility player Nerissa Myers and outfielder Kimi Pohlman (a 2012 draftee who didn't play last summer). If you count Eri Yamada, a longtime star in Japan who is nonetheless in her first NPF season, it's five key rookies for the top seed.

But if Galati can keep the Comets around beyond Thursday, it should just about finish the debate.

Take out two appearances against the Bandits in which she allowed a combined 14 earns runs in 9 1/3 innings, and Galati put up a 3.16 ERA in her other 18 appearances this season. Narrow the focus to just those games she pitched against the Racers, the opponent in the playoff opener she will presumably start, and Galati's ERA drops to 1.76 in nearly 40 innings. She has allowed a somewhat alarming number of hits and hasn't carried over anything close to the college strikeout rate, but the combination of innings, ERA and pressure to carry a pitching staff reveal far more than a 6-10 record. Thursday's game won't prove or disprove her value, but it's a nice spotlight for the end of an impressive debut season.

5. So what will it take to win the title?

Chicago Bandits (36-12): Keep hitting. This isn't just Abbott and her supporting cast (which it was when the Bandits won the title in 2011), or even Abbott and Wiggins and their supporting cast. The Bandits led the league in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage because Wiggins and Tammy Williams were great all-around run producers, but also because Vicky Galindo got on base, Myers and Pohlman excelled and Kristen Butler, Brittany Cervantes, Alisa Goler and Yamada provided power. If they face the Pride and a healthy Osterman, the lineup must continue to do its part.

USSSA Pride (34-14): Someone other than Osterman will need to win at least one game somewhere along the line. There is no shortage of candidates with NPF all-time wins leader Sarah Pauly, Jordan Taylor and Keilani Ricketts, among others, but who gets the ball? After a slow start as a midseason arrival, Ricketts pitched her best game as a pro to beat the Bandits in the final series of the regular season. The Pride also need the speed of Charters (nine stolen bases), Caitlin Lowe (16 SB) and Natasha Watley (13 SB) to get on base and make life uncomfortable for opponents.

Akron Racers (16-32): With Kaylyn Castillo, Sam Marder, Charlotte Morgan and Taylor Schlopy, the lineup can put runners on base and bring them home. And in a winner-take-all game, the three-run home run is a devastating weapon. Hopes of reaching the championship series or more nonetheless depend on a sudden surge in pitching. If veteran Lisa Norris, sharp in June and early July before she was sidelined by an injury, could come up with a gem or two, stranger things have happened than this team pulling an upset.

NY/NJ Comets (10-38): They aren't uncompetitive, but they are the fourth seed for a reason. The Comets are last in the league by a good bit in on-base percentage and slugging percentage and struck out nearly 100 more times than any of the other teams. Even if Galati pitches well, they need power that has too sporadically shown up this season to come through in Chicago. That means big hits from Amanda Kamekona, Courtney Liddle, Bianca Mejia and Dorian Shaw.

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