Pitching Perfect As Bandits Edge Pride For National Pro Fastpitch Championship

With matching 1-0 scores, Monica Abbott twice shut down one of the best lineups ever assembled as the Bandits won their third NPF title in eight seasons. Jade Hewitt/Courtesy of National Pro Fastpitch

Leave it to Monica Abbott to make the most fitting tribute to Cat Osterman as the latter stepped into the pitching circle for the final time.

Abbott went out and showed how good someone had to be to beat Osterman.

The final meeting between the best two pitchers of a generation, the National Pro Fastpitch championship series between Abbott's Chicago Bandits and Osterman's USSSA Pride, was exactly as good as advertised. The only two teams with winning records in the regular season, the Bandits and Pride possessed quality pitching depth. But both could have rented out the bullpens in the final game. This was about the two aces.

Osterman was excellent. In the best season of her career -- which does not lack for great seasons -- Abbott was better.

In twin 1-0 scores, the Bandits swept the best-of-three championship series from the Pride and won their third title in eight seasons.

The degree of difficulty for what Abbott accomplished is staggering.

The batting order Chicago's ace faced in the final began with Natasha Watley, arguably the best leadoff hitter of all time and this season's batting champion by a wide margin.

Almost by definition, it should have gotten easier from there. It did not.

The Pride lineup included three former Olympians, Watley among them, and the past three NPF players of the year: Kelly Kretschman, Andrea Duran and Megan Wiggins. It included two stars of a new generation: Shelby Pendley, the league's newest rookie of the year, and Madison Shipman, the player Pendley succeeded for that award.

And Abbot's margin for error while facing that lineup was about the size of the 1.21 ERA with which Osterman, another former Olympian, finished her final season.

Against all of that, Abbott pitched a shutout in the second game -- just as she did in the first game a day earlier.

It would make for a tidier story if the run that decided Monday's game had lived up to the pedigree of the pitchers, if one perfect swing from any of the numerous capable sluggers had sent a ball deep into the night in Hoover, Alabama. The reality is that runs against pitchers like Abbott and Osterman are just as often the ungainly product of capitalizing on the mistakes made in the pressure of the moment.

With one out and no runners on base in the bottom of the second inning, Chicago's Tammy Williams hit what should have been a routine ground ball to shortstop. But Shipman, so sublimely good with the glove that her arrival a season ago displaced Watley to the outfield, couldn't field the chance cleanly. Catcher Megan Willis was then called for interference when her glove made contact with Danielle Zymkowitz's bat before, in the ensuing at-bat, the Chicago hitter fouled off a 2-2 pitch, putting runners on first and second with one out. A throwing error by Osterman after she fielded a mishit ground ball off the bat of Vicky Galasso allowed Williams to come around to score.

It appeared initially that the Bandits had a two-run cushion after Zymkowitz was called safe at home on the same play, but the call was reversed after consultation between umpires.

The Bandits, as it turned out, didn't need the insurance.

Four minutes. Two ground balls and a tipped swing. That was all it took. Pendley narrowly missed a home run in the top of the second on a two-strike, opposite-field double that hit the wall on the fly. The Pride got runners to first and second in the fifth inning on an error and a hit batter. But Abbott more or less did as she pleased against one of the most talent-laden rosters ever assembled.

In 22 postseason innings, she allowed seven hits and one earned run. Add in the regular season, and she made 15 starts this summer. She pitched 13 shutouts.

Trying to identify the best pitcher of all time is an argument no one can win, but the identity of the best pitcher in the world at the moment seems safely settled.

Osterman tried to choke back her emotion as she watched the celebration unfold after the final -- another cruel ending for someone whose body of work makes her name very much a part of that first argument. And with retirement looming, this ending has a dose of finality.

Add the final game Osterman pitched for Texas in the Women's College World Series to the final game she pitched for the United States in the Olympics and the final game she pitched in the NPF, and between them all she received a total of one run of support.

She wouldn't shrink from acknowledging her own hand in the outcome on all three occasions. She gave up the home runs hit by UCLA's Duran and Emily Zaplatosch in the 2006 World Series. She gave up the home run Eri Yamada hit for Japan in the 2008 gold medal game. She made the throwing error Monday that allowed Williams to score. She also won an Olympic gold medal and multiple world and NPF championships, rewrote numerous NCAA records and almost singlehandedly made Texas a softball heavyweight.

Perhaps the best-known softball player not named Jennie Finch, she had a fine career. But rarely has someone paid a steeper price for being just a tiny bit less than perfect.

In the zero-sum world of sports, one person's unhappy ending is another's opportunity to ride off into the sunset. At least for Amber Patton, who had already announced her intention to retire after seven seasons, and probably for quite a few other Bandits, Monday was that opportunity. Abbott made the Bandits a championship team, but players like Patton, Williams, Zymkowitz and Brittany Cervantes, the NPF offensive player of the year, help make the franchise a success story in women's professional sports. That quartet had a combined 22 seasons with the Bandits. The rest of the roster, sans Abbott, had a total of 23.

That era, too, is coming to a close, although to exactly what extent remains to be seen as players make decisions about their futures.

But as long as Abbott is around, softball has an ace. And the Bandits have a chance.