Paige Parker and Paige Lowary form an impenetrable partnership at Oklahoma
NORMAN, Okla. -- It had every opportunity to falter as night met morning and Oklahoma and Florida played on and on in the Women's College World Series. The partnership between Paige Lowary and Paige Parker instead held fast. Held as firmly as perhaps any in the sport ever has.
Taking turns over the course of 17 innings, 247 pitches and nearly six hours in the opening game of the best-of-three championship round, the Oklahoma pitchers held off the Gators long enough for their teammates to find the winning runs. First Lowary, then Parker, and finally Lowary again. Speed, then spin, and speed again, one ready when the other grew weary.
But what transpired during an epic World Series encounter last season wasn't the explanation of why the partnership works, only the manifestation of its strength. They didn't say much to each other in those moments. They rarely do during games. Different pitchers with different strengths and plans, there isn't much to say of strategic value. They save their breath. One hands the ball to the other, offers few words beyond "close it out," and retreats, ready if called.
They understand in those moments that each is better because of the other. That each offered something the other needed. Two pitchers who once embodied the solitude of softball's old model of pitching found in each other a blueprint for a new approach.
"It's two different stories," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of the two seniors. "But both just wonderful stories that I'll always reflect on."
The pitchers' conversation was more expansive as they sat together on a hill overlooking part of Los Angeles earlier last season, Parker's third and Lowary's first at Oklahoma. Still months away from defending their national title, the Sooners were mired in a stretch of three losses in five days. Thus the reflective mood.
"We were in one of our rough spots," Parker said. "And I think that was one of the things that spurred [the conversation]."
Alone and away from the field, they talked as much about life as softball.
"No one knows who you are down there," Lowary mused at one point.
Admittedly, the accuracy of her advice is debatable. Southern California is the cradle of softball. And given the population of Los Angeles, even if only a fraction of 1 percent of the people going about their lives that day knew Parker's name, tens of thousands knew who she was. The sentiment, however, hit home. Neither of them needed to feel as if the world might collapse if the Sooners lost a few games. Most of the world, in fact, wouldn't ever know.
The weight of the world wasn't on their shoulders. What weight remained they bore together.
Parker certainly bore the full tonnage of Oklahoma's aspirations in her first two years. Expected to ease into innings as a freshman, she instead became a workhorse after the toll of the previous season slowed senior Kelsey Stevens. Parker pitched all but one inning for the Sooners in her first postseason, including two starts on the final day of a super regional at Alabama. Four outs from securing a place in the World Series, she instead gave up a grand slam.
Seeing the stunned look that lingered on the freshman's face long after that game -- in it the burden of responsibility in what was the final game Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley ever played for the Sooners -- Gasso worried Parker might never be the same. Instead, she was at least as good the next season. Even without Chamberlain and Pendley, Parker and a lineup full of precocious freshmen won a national championship. When the NCAA tournament arrived, Parker pitched every inning in the regional, super regional and preliminary round of the World Series. The only game she didn't start was the only game Oklahoma lost en route to its title.
She did what softball aces had done for years, from Lisa Fernandez to Danielle Lawrie. She took the ball and pitched. Inning after inning. Except that in an age of increased scouting, better bats and growing parity, among other factors, doing that has never been more exhausting. Gasso suggested Parker might be the last to make that sort of solo run through a postseason. Perhaps that's premature, but the evidence of recent seasons suggests it is becoming the exception.
"She knew and I knew that I never wanted to put her through what she went through as a sophomore," Gasso said. "It was absolutely physically, mentally and emotionally draining to the point of being uncomfortable, going that far with her."
Which is about the time Gasso got an email from Lowary, who had concluded a tumultuous sophomore season at Missouri that spring and announced her intention to transfer. During a game in a February tournament in California, a line drive struck Lowary in the face. After a brief pause, she remained in the game and completed the inning.
She played again a week later and gave up six hits, seven walks, two hit batters and 11 earned runs. The rest of her outings weren't as disastrous. Able to throw the ball in the low-to-mid 70s, she could beat teams simply by throwing the ball past batters. But she threw every pitch in fear. There was no initial concussion diagnosis, but Gasso said the Oklahoma medical staff diagnosed post-concussion syndrome at the start of the school year when she arrived at Oklahoma.
Her talent and résumé were such that she was invited to participate in a USA Softball event in Oklahoma City after the season. Except that by then, it meant little. She knew she didn't want to go back to Missouri, but she didn't know what was next.
"I honestly kind of didn't want to play anymore," Lowary said. "But I thought that I should at least visit places and see if I could find a place where I thought I could fall in love with the game again."
That led to the now well-chronicled Uber ride from Oklahoma City to Norman to visit the campus and meet the coach. Even with the injury and subsequent symptoms, Lowary was responsible for nearly 50 percent of Missouri's innings her first two seasons. She knew that wouldn't be the case at Oklahoma, not with Parker coming off a championship. There were schools eager to hand her the ball as much as she was used to, but innings weren't her priority.
"She came in here very broken, uncertain, low self-esteem," Gasso said. "We really felt like we had to get her to trust us and believe us. She was very guarded for a long time. And with her concussion situation, she got a late start because we wouldn't put her out in front of live hitters for a while. ...
"To see where this girl went from, from August to June, there should be a movie written about it."
Still, before she cast her in that production, Gasso first approached Parker about the offer yet to be extended. She felt she owed the pitcher at least that. There was no hesitation. Pitching in the shadow of Keilani Ricketts didn't stop Parker from becoming the face of the program. Pitching next to Lowary didn't bother her, either. That commitment only grew stronger upon meeting her.
"I could tell that she wanted a better experience than what she'd had," Parker said. "I wanted to be a part of getting that better experience for her. You love the game so much, and you want other people to experience that love, too. I wanted that for her. When she came, it was just about trying to help her through her journey of getting back to loving softball again."
It helped that they shared interests off the field -- each possessed an artistic bent that often left them in the minority on past teams. Lowary is the more likely of the two to paint or draw, while Parker's muse is more often expressed in craft projects or calligraphy, but they joined forces on a sign that hung in the dugout during the postseason. They understand each other. They understand the release of their art. They understand what it's like to be the arm a team relies on day after day, from travel ball all the way to college.
"It made us who we are," Lowary said of pitching so many innings for so many years. "But at the same time, it's also really nice to appreciate and have someone else there for you now. You're not on your own. It's very stressful being on your own."
The partnership will change a little this season. Still working her way back much of last season, Lowary was suited to the limited closer's role she filled much of the time. But with better movement to complement her speed, and the off-speed pitch used so well in the World Series, she needs more innings, Gasso acknowledged. All involved also point out that the pitching staff is more than two people. The Sooners will need to bring along Mariah Lopez, Melanie Olmos and Parker Conrad (another Missouri transfer whom Lowary has taken under her wing) or risk a painful rebuild when the seniors leave after this season. But it will remain a partnership.
Parker offered Lowary a safe space to love the game again.
Lowary afforded Parker relief, physically and mentally, from an unsustainable pace.
"She's helped me try to see the bigger picture of things and not be so nitpicky about all the small things," Parker said. "She's definitely helped me a lot in that. I think from her experiences, she's learned to see the bigger picture, so she's helped me see it, just in life, in general."
Try all you like. Try for 17 innings. Together they aren't easy to beat.