ROSEMONT, Ill. -- What a difference a year makes.
This time, the only umbrella that made an appearance in the Ballpark at Rosemont belonged to someone who hoped to gain a few moments of relief from a sun that set up shop early in the day and yielded only grudgingly to night.
This time, the drama came with the bases loaded, two outs and one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived sprinting out of the bullpen to replace a player who hopes to tread a similar path. It didn't come with the field deserted and covered in water.
This time, someone won. Which always helps.
A year after rain and poor planning brought the season to a close without a champion, professional softball needed a day like this.
The USSSA Pride needed to win twice Saturday against a Chicago Bandits team that needed just one win to retain the Cowles Cup, National Pro Fastpitch's championship trophy. And one of those wins would have to come against Bandits ace Monica Abbott, arguably the best pitcher in the world and a perpetual thorn in the side of her rival.
She is arguably the best pitcher in the world mostly because Cat Osterman still makes it an argument.
The Pride first evened the series with a 5-0 win behind a complete-game shutout from Osterman. As night arrived and Osterman came out of the bullpen for a save, they beat the Bandits 2-1 to win the championship. It's the second title for the Florida-based team that joined the league in 2009 and immediately took on a high profile thanks to a roster loaded with former Olympians and college stars.
None are more well known than Osterman, the three-time college player of the year at the University of Texas and two-time Olympic medalist for the United States. In 16 1/3 innings in the playoffs, she didn't allow an earned run, gave up just seven hits and struck out 21 batters. Barely two hours after she shut out the team that led the league in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, she sprinted out of the bullpen to face Alisa Goler with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning of the winner-take-all finale.
No other pitcher in the world can blow away hitters with pitches that wouldn't earn a speeding ticket on the interstate. The first pitch to Goler was a called strike at 63 mph. The second was another called strike, this time registering 58 mph. Goler swung at the third pitch, a 63 mph offering with physics-defying movement. She came up empty for strike three.
Rally quelled. And six outs later, game over.
In April, on the day she turned 30, Osterman made it known she planned to retire at the end of the summer. Injuries the past few years had taken a toll on both her body and mind. But healthy after finally having a full offseason to train rather than rehab, she found she also was happy. Less happy were the hitters who helped make her the NPF Pitcher of the Year.
Days like Saturday are why she changed her mind about retiring.
"I think I fell in love with [softball] again this summer," Osterman said. "Last summer was really a struggle, and I didn't enjoy throwing as much as I did this summer. And living in moments like this weekend, this is the second or third time I've been in an intense game with Chicago, and those are the moments we live for. No matter what side you're on, when you're in that moment, it's emotional and you want to be in that moment. That's where I am right now."
And the pitcher she relieved might be next in line.
Osterman said after the Pride leveled the series in the first game, coach J.T. D'Amico asked her if she could potentially turn around and start the second game an hour later. She didn't immediately answer, her competitive instincts making it difficult to demur, but she knew she wouldn't be able to finish it if she started. D'Amico instead turned to Keilani Ricketts.
That wouldn't have been an option at the start of the season because Ricketts didn't join the team until July after a somewhat acrimonious parting of company with Team USA. It wouldn't have seemed a good option as recently as the beginning of August.
Coming off the national team drama and a long college season that saw her and the Oklahoma Sooners in the spotlight from the get-go, she gave up 17 earned runs in her first three appearances.
"Her first start she makes, it's 108 heat index at Yogi Berra Stadium [on a road trip to New Jersey] in the middle of the day," D'Amico said. "She didn't step into an ideal [situation]. She didn't have a chance to know anybody; she got thrown right to the fire. And quite frankly, she got lit up a little bit."
But Ricketts bounced back to beat the Bandits in the final series of the regular season. She took the loss in Game 1 of the championship series but pitched at least as well as Abbott before errors behind her opened the door for the Bandits to sprint through in the final inning. And Sunday's trouble in the fifth inning notwithstanding, she was just fine with the highest of stakes on the line.
"She dominated Chicago three straight outings, the best-hitting team in our league," D'Amico said. "I don't know what the stats are from [Megan] Wiggins -- bless her heart, she's one of the best hitters in the world, and Keilani went right through their lineup time and time again."
The regular-season league MVP, Wiggins is one of the best hitters in the world, Maybe the best. She went hitless with two walks and one hit-by-pitch in the playoffs. The Bandits totaled 10 hits.
For the Pride, the biggest hit of the day came when Andrea Duran broke a scoreless tie in first game with a two-run home run. The Pride averaged better than two extra-base hits per game in the regular season, but every run had been a struggle in a win against the Akron Racers and a loss against the Bandits on Friday. Nothing came easy without any extra-base hits. Duran's high arcing shot seemed to open the door. She followed with another RBI in that game and an RBI double in the finale.
"I think Dre's home run in that game was huge for us," said Kristyn Sandberg, an MVP candidate herself after she went 3-for-3 with a home run against Abbott in the finale. "I think it lifted our spirits a lot in the dugout. It made us realize that we can do this, we can play two games."
That said, the series was such that if they played five games, you had the feeling either team could have won three. And if they played seven games, the other one might have won four games. Counting the regular season, they played 19 times this season. The final tally was 10-9 in favor of the Pride.
To paraphrase a familiar aphorism, it wasn't so much that the Bandits lost as they ran out of games. Everything about Saturday was reason for optimism about the sport, from a level of play as high as anything likely seen to the atmosphere of a crowded stadium on a beautiful summer day.
That doesn't erase the very real challenges for a league in which teams still don't make money and in which the fourth team -- without which it really isn't a league -- has changed ownership and location in each of the past four seasons. It's easier to gloss over the hurdles than it was amidst the finger pointing and recriminations in the wake of last season's playoff debacle, but they remain.
A ceremony before Saturday's game for league alumni, many still in the prime of their athletic years, was a reminder that a lot of players who have been fixtures in the league won't be back, Bandits second baseman Vicky Galindo and NY/NJ Comets shortstop Bianca Mejia are just two of the most notable on a list that will inevitably grow. It could include Bandits third baseman Amber Patton, a five-year veteran and key figure for a team that won the regular-season title this season and the Cowles Cup in 2011. She wasn't sure she would return for even that fifth season.
Patton and others would like to keep playing, but there comes a point where a three-month summer job makes for a great present and a lousy future.
"Right now I don't know, which is -- it's tough," Patton said as she fought to control tears. "I mean, you never know. I just really, really hope that this league takes off and that people aren't faced with this decision, because it's tough. You've got to make a living. But what I love is ... the past few nights we've had sellout crowds.
"It's getting there, and I think we're taking the right steps."
As good as Osterman and the Pride were in earning the title, Saturday won't change everything. Maybe it won't change much of anything tangibly. But it should help people believe that it can change.
Softball season ended with a worthy champion and some optimism. What a difference a year makes.