Bandits win wild Game 1 over Pride

Courtesy of Dina Kwit/National Pro Fastpitch

The Bandits’ Amber Patton slides home as teammate Tammy Williams celebrates in a seventh inning full of Pride blunders.

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- For all that the rivalry between the two best teams in softball has to offer, it is beginning to feel like a long time since the Chicago Bandits last lost to the USSSA Pride when it mattered.

For reversing that trend to matter at all, the Pride must now beat the Bandits twice on Saturday.

One run from elimination in what amounted to a semifinal earlier in the day, the Pride were one inning from a win against the Bandits in the opening game of the best-of-three championship series in National Pro Fastpitch. Instead, on the wildest of a day full of plays at the plate, the Bandits scored two runs without the benefit of a hit and walked off with a 3-2 win.

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Despite the loss, Pride pitcher Keilani Ricketts threw an impressive game against the Bandits.

"Someone asked us earlier if we were nervous to play this weekend," Bandits shortstop Tammy Williams said after she scored the tying run and was first to the celebratory dogpile that followed the winning run. "This is what we play for. And we play to play our biggest rival and let the plays and let the game come down to that last inning, that last play at the plate."

It took some doing to get there.

The Bandits needed just three batters to open the scoring in the bottom of the first inning. Eri Yamada hit a one-out triple off Pride starting pitcher Keilani Ricketts and came in to score soon thereafter when a grounder by Nerissa Myers led to a throwing error from shortstop Natasha Watley. But, with the exception of an infield single by Kazuki Watanabe two innings later, that was all the damage the Bandits could do against Ricketts until the frantic final inning. Even then, the pitcher turned out to be more innocent bystander than guilty accomplice.

The Pride and coach J.T. D'Amico faced a conundrum Friday. As a result of losing the regular-season finale against the Bandits last week, they were the No. 2 seed. That meant they had to top the Akron Racers in Friday's first game to reach the championship series, where the top-seeded Bandits already resided as automatic qualifiers. If the Pride started NPF Pitcher of the Year Cat Osterman against the Racers, they wouldn't have her to face Monica Abbott in the championship series opener. If they saved Osterman, they risked not being in the day's second game.

D'Amico started Osterman, who threw a one-hitter in a 2-1 win against the Racers, a game that saw both teams trade outs on plays at the plate until the Pride's Ashley Charters came home with the winning run in the bottom of the seventh while teammate Natasha Watley was caught in a rundown between first and second base.

"I didn't stress about it, for starters, because we've got a very deep pitching staff," D'Amico said. "I guess what it ultimately came down to in staff discussions was, if you're in a loser-out game, who is your best kid? It's Cat Osterman. I'm not going to outsmart it. A lot of people have never got to Game 2 with their best pitcher on the bench."

But instead of starting either of veterans Sarah Pauly or Jordan Taylor against the Bandits, the Pride turned to Ricketts. After a rough introduction to the NPF at midseason, the rookie from the University of Oklahoma pitched her best game as a professional last week against the Bandits. She was just as good this time.

That the conclusion pinned her with a loss didn't change the fact that the pitching plan worked. Ricketts was terrific, just as she was for the United States in a losing effort against Japan in the ISF World Championship last summer and just as she was in the marathon opener against Tennessee in the championship round of the Women's College World Series. She can handle big stages. Whatever happens Saturday, next summer is going to be a handful for teams that have to face Osterman and Ricketts for a full season.

The Pride evened the score on two infield singles and a stolen base in the fifth inning, Watley doing the damage on the bases and Kelly Kretschman driving her in. They took the lead in the top of the seventh when Kretschman again drove in a run to cap a rally that started with an infield single, this time from Francesca Enea. All they needed were three more outs.

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Pride catcher Kristyn Sandberg held on to the ball against a leaping Kelly Montalvo in the elimination game win over the Racers.

Leading off the bottom of the seventh, Williams drew a walk after she worked the count full and fouled off the first 3-2 pitch. One of the most productive hitters in the league this season, but also one of its most aggressive, it was just her 10th walk in 49 games. That effort to find a way on base might not have mattered if not for what transpired when Amber Patton hit a one-out grounder in the direction of third baseman Haruna Sakamoto.

Williams said the first thing that went through her mind was that she had to beat any attempted force play at second base and get into scoring position. That much she accomplished when Sakamoto instead went to first base with her throw, but Williams then saw that throw sail wide of the target and ricochet back into right field as Pride defenders scrambled to collect it. Bandits coach Michael Steuerwald never hesitated as he waved Williams around third base, which looked like a costly gamble when the throw home arrived well ahead of the charging runner.

"I saw the ball go, and I knew he wasn't stopping me," Williams said. "On the way home, I thought I was going to be dead.

"It works out that we win the game instead."

It worked out because catcher Megan Willis was unable to handle the throw. For the second time since the ball had left Patton's bat, it bounded away from a defender. Williams was safe, and the ensuing scramble allowed Patton time to come all the way around and score the game-winning run. One play, two errors and two runs -- all without a hit.

"That deal that you just watched in the seventh inning, that stuff happens in Williamsport," D'Amico said in reference to the site of the Little League World Series.

The Pride blundered their way through too much of the game. They finished with three errors. And, on a day when it was so difficult to get runs across the plate, they saw one erased in dumbfounding fashion. Kristyn Sandberg appeared to score on a sacrifice fly to left field in the second inning, but Yamada dropped the ball in left before she could complete the catch. Sandberg crossed the plate, but the run was negated when the Bandits forced a runner at second and got the ball to first base before Willis touched the bag on what had seemed a routine fly out.

The miscues are more costly than ever because the Bandits are better than ever.

When the Bandits won the title in 2011, it was a sizable upset. They finished that regular season with a 20-20 record, 10½ games behind the Pride in the standings. A year ago, they finished 6½ games behind the Pride in the standings. The Pride are 95-35 over the past three regular seasons, but they haven't beaten the Bandits in the postseason since 2010.

And this year it was the Bandits who finished the regular season atop the standings.

"Our goal is to win two rings," Williams said in an allusion to the rings neither team won last summer. "And so every game that we play them, it's like this. Just not as many people get to see it. That's what starts these rivalries. And this is what starts, I'm sure, Red Sox-Yankees.

"And that's what we love about the sport."

It was an imperfect game. In so many ways, it didn't reflect the best this league has to offer as the highest level of softball.

But the passion on display Friday represented the best the league has to offer. It is why this is a perfect rivalry.

Even if it has been awhile since the Bandits lost when it mattered.

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