It wasn't by choice that FSU's Jessie Warren was in position to make the diving double play
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The funny part is, Jessie Warren didn't want to be a third baseman. Heck, she didn't want to play softball. She was a shortstop -- a baseball shortstop. So when Florida State coach Lonni Alameda moved her to the hot corner all those years ago, a position in softball that demands near-superhuman reaction speed and superhero fearlessness because of the defender's proximity to the batter, the freshman was reduced to tears.
"She cried for like three days," Alameda recalled last year. "She was saying, 'I can't play here,' arguing with me."
Warren relented eventually. Everyone associated with Florida State is thankful she did. They were thankful even before Washington's Trysten Melhart put just enough air under a bunt with no outs and one runner on base in the bottom of the seventh inning to give Warren a sliver of an opening. But they marveled all the more after she dove and caught the ball at full extension -- her glove landing well to the first base side of the pitcher's circle and only a few feet from home plate -- then got to her knees and threw the ball to first base to double off the equally amazed runner.
"I had a feeling they were going to try to lay it down, especially a slapper up to bat," Warren said. "I read her hands really well. She came around, and I just got a good read on the ball and then just laid it out for the team."
With her team in possession of a 1-0 lead and seeking its fifth win in a little more than 48 hours, Warren made the play that quelled Washington's last chance to reverse momentum and rally. Her heroics leave Florida State a Tuesday win away from its first national championship.
"My first instinct when [Melhart] hit the ball, I saw it had like 3 feet under it, and I was like, 'Jessie's got that,'" Florida State catcher Anna Shelnutt said. "She's a freakin' animal, and she makes those plays all the time."
Then Shelnutt turned toward Warren sitting a couple of seats down from her.
"I had complete faith in you, dog."
Everyone at Florida State has that faith. Probably because you can't explain half of what Warren manages to do on the field. You have to take it on faith that someone who seems so effortlessly able to complete any athletic task really exists outside of a children's book or video game.
As Alameda said Monday, it is the offense that is easiest to appreciate with Warren. She has 82 career home runs, tied with former Michigan star Sierra Romero for ninth in NCAA Division I history. Whether her time in college ends Tuesday or Wednesday, she should finish ranked in the top 15 in career slugging percentage. All of that despite playing through a broken foot earlier this season that slowed her after a red-hot start at the plate.
Warren is always going to try to make a play. Go back to the very first swing of Monday's game. In her first-ever at-bat in the championship round of the Women's College World Series, Warren took a big, aggressive hack at a Gabbie Plain pitch. She missed, but she gave it a go without a trace of nervousness or, frankly, caution. Forget the surroundings and just play.
She tried again in quintessential Warren fashion in the fifth inning of what then remained a scoreless game. With two strikes on her, she took the kind of swing hitters take to live to see another pitch. Except that in Warren's case, the essentially one-handed contact on a pitch low and away -- her right hand pulled almost off the bat -- sent the ball soaring into the gap in left-center field with such pace that she had to slide into second to complete the double. She made it as far as third base before the inning ended. She added another double in the seventh.
That is what she does. She hit a home run in each of Florida State's three games in a super regional against LSU, the super regional that required a comeback for the Seminoles to even get to Oklahoma City to stage the comeback for the ages they are currently undertaking. She hit another in Sunday's second elimination game against UCLA.
But on Monday night, Shelnutt provided the hitting heroics with the home run for the game's only run. So Warren, who belongs on the short list with the likes of UCLA's Andrea Duran, Alabama's Kelly Montalvo and a handful of others as the best hot corner defenders of the past 10 or 15 years, turned to the other part of the game that she makes look so easy.
"This is weird to say, but that's Jessie," Alameda said. "Everyone looks at her offensive production, and it is amazing. And her success is amazing. But she plays third base like a shortstop. She makes those plays all the time. She loves playing the game, so we've seen her do that a bunch of times."
Warren didn't take an easy road to college athletics, even after she switched from baseball to softball just before high school as a more likely route to a scholarship. She grew up without a lot of money in a sport that is very expensive to play at the most competitive youth levels. She had an unsettled and at times stressful family life and spent part of high school living at the home of a teammate. But she kept making plays when she was on the field -- so many of them that she couldn't slip through the cracks. And in Alameda and the Seminoles, she found a home and place to build a future. Even if that meant settling into a new home on the field itself.
So as her teammates sat there after Monday's game and attempted the awkward task of talking about her in her presence, Warren didn't blush or stare away into space embarrassed. She watched them with a wide grin spread across her face.
"Thanks, guys," she said at last.
Not at all like the tears third base once elicited.