An ace-to-ace reckoning helped put Meghan King and FSU in championship position
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Meghan King might work quickly, but neither she nor her Florida State teammates are in a hurry to leave here. Not without the trophy they came to claim. The trophy Florida State has waited longer than any other program to take home. The one now a win away.
King struggled to get her face mask to work when Monday's game began. She walked right up to the line of rules regarding pace of play. She got herself into and out of trouble. And she got some help from one of the best plays of the tournament, by teammate Jessie Warren.
King's third start in as many days wasn't perfect. But it was a five-hit shutout on the biggest stage she's ever seen, the opening game of the Women's College World Series championship round.
King isn't worried about perfection. She's learned from postseason experience that is a siren song. She isn't trying to do it all. She knows she is part of a team -- both the larger team that gets off the bus each day and a team of pitchers within the team. So she does her part.
"My mentality going into this game is I know that there are going to be hits hit off me, I know there are going to be runs scored," King said of Florida State's 1-0 win over Washington. "We're playing the best teams in college softball. ... Failure happens, it happens every single day in our game. But ... I know that my teammates have my back every play."
She could afford to be a little less certain about the part where runs are scored against her.
The fact that Washington joined an ever-growing list of teams that struggled to do just that this postseason is a big reason why the Seminoles, with five wins in a row, have already matched the best comeback by a team that lost its opening game in the World Series.
But she didn't just start doing her part this week.
King started Florida State's first elimination game this tournament, way back in a super regional May 26 against LSU. The Seminoles took an early 5-1 lead that day, but King gave up four runs in the bottom of the fifth inning. For six more innings, Florida State's season hung in the balance. She didn't allow another run. For 186 pitches in all, she kept going until teammates found the runs to win.
She hasn't allowed an earned run since, a streak that stands at 33⅓ innings.
In her only other World Series trip, in 2016, King gave up nine earned runs in a little more than nine innings. So yes, she experienced failure. On Monday, she didn't give up so much as an extra-base hit. She got the ball and threw, over and over, content to take what result came of it.
"I just think she has great command and throws a lot of strikes," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "She pitches with the rhythm she likes to pitch with. Pitches quick. Something I know a lot of other teams comment on after having played her."
Indeed, while Washington's speed was responsible for just about every hit it managed against King, her greatest challenge all night was her own quickness. Rule 10.2.2 states that a pitcher "shall pause for a minimum of two seconds to take or simulate taking a signal." King often makes that a photo finish. Plate umpire Terry Holt called her for a violation once in the bottom of the fifth inning. On the next pitch, a runner moved into scoring position. Then she moved to third base. King calmly coaxed a grounder out of Julia DePonte to end the inning.
"Every single umpire calls me for it," King said. "I'm a quick pitcher. That's how I've been since I was very young."
Tarr said after the game that she wouldn't go searching through the rule book to try to find an advantage via gamesmanship, that it wasn't her coaching style. She said it was up to her hitters to make the adjustments necessary to regain their own rhythms against King.
If they face her again, that is. Because while King is a big part of why Florida State finds itself one victory from a championship, equally important is her understanding that doing her part means she won't always be in the circle. Even with a season on the line.
When it comes to the philosophy of pitching, the math is changing in a hurry for teams interested in winning championships. Where one pitching ace was a winning hand most years, two of a kind are now necessary.
That is why it was so important that Florida State added Kylee Hanson as a fifth-year transfer last summer, offsetting the departure of All-American Jessica Burroughs. The old math is why it took time for King and Hanson to accept that two is always greater than one.
For three years, first during King's redshirt season and then her first two seasons on the field, she and Burroughs formed one of the most well-matched pairs in college softball. Burroughs, the older player who could have expected deference and innings, acted as much like a sister or a mentor as a competitor.
It was also a relationship that had years to grow. That wasn't the case when Florida State added Hanson, who turned down Florida State out of high school because the Seminoles wanted her to redshirt her first year. Hanson instead spent four years dominating hitters at Florida Atlantic. Able to transfer as a graduate student, she chose Florida State. It meant she was in some ways both a freshman and a senior, new to her teammates and new to the program's culture but also trying to savor all the "lasts" that came with a final season.
"They are two of the most competitive pitchers I've ever been around," Florida State coach Lonni Alameda said. "So really they are a lot alike, and they didn't know that. That's where the butting heads happened. Once they realized where we could go as a staff, all of a sudden they're hanging out and going for coffee together, doing things together. It's just one of those things that I think happens normally. And if she was with us for four years, it would have been like [the Burroughs] relationship. But since it was kind of a throw [them together] and figure it out, it took a little while to figure it out."
King understood she couldn't pitch every inning. She understood from the outset that the team was better because it had Hanson -- that she, too, was better for it. Her time with Burroughs taught her that. But like two sprinters on the same team vying for the anchor leg of a relay, it was difficult to turn off the competitiveness. It wasn't ego. It wasn't selfishness. It's just that if the other person wants the baton, so do you. All the more, in fact.
"There were times at the beginning of the season where I was trying to compete with her, but I don't even know why I was trying to compete with her," King said this week. "I don't think it was because I felt threatened with her, it's just we're both very competitive, and as a pitcher, you always want the ball.
"There have been times where we competed with each other, but now we're competing together for the team."
So it wasn't King who fended off elimination in the super regional finale against LSU. It was Hanson. It wasn't King who eliminated the No. 1 seed in the World Series. It was Hanson.
That depth is why the Seminoles have a chance to be the first team to lose its Women's College World Series opener and win the national title since the advent of the best-of-three final round in 2005.
King could start again Tuesday. She has been Florida State's best pitcher this week. She has been arguably the tournament's best pitcher. But the odds are she will watch Tuesday's game from the dugout, cheering for a teammate and a friend. And if her throw to first base to end Game 1 is the last we see of her in competition this World Series, she will be just fine with that.
But if there is still softball to play Wednesday, she will be ready to do her part. Quickly, naturally.