One-of-a-kind Monica Abbott pitches two epic games to lift Scrap Yard Dawgs to NPF title

Monica Abbott had 25 strikeouts Sunday to help the Scrap Yard Dawgs clinch their first NPF title. Courtesy Jade Hewitt

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Monica Abbott's counterparts in the pitching circle for Game 2 of National Pro Fastpitch's championship series, first Keilani Ricketts and later Hannah Rogers, won a combined 260 games during college careers that also produced two national player of the year awards and two Women's College World Series Most Outstanding Player awards.

Abbott struck out college softball's all-time home run leader for the first out of the final inning. She struck out the 2016 NCAA player of the year for the third out. Neither Lauren Chamberlain nor Sierra Romero appeared to have much chance to alter their fates as Abbott's Scrap Yard Dawgs leveled the best-of-three series against the USSSA Pride.

Even among the most select company the sport can offer, Abbott is one of a kind.

Then Abbott returned an hour later, on a day when the shade of a solar eclipse sounded rather inviting, and did it all over again.

The best pitcher in the world even stopped to sign autographs between games.

So if softball's first million-dollar arm, now a four-time playoff MVP, needed a little help from a rookie to get across the finish line, it was the least she had earned.

After Abbott's 2-0 shutout evened the series, Kasey Cooper's two-run home run in the top of the sixth inning provided Abbott with the necessary run support for a 5-2 comeback win that clinched the title for Scrap Yard in the Houston-area franchise's second season in the NPF.

"You can follow softball for the next 30, 40, 50 years, and I don't think you'll see another performance equal to her performance here this week." Gerry Glasco

Abbott's final line for the day: 14 innings pitched, one earned run allowed, 25 strikeouts.

"You can follow softball for the next 30, 40, 50 years, and I don't think you'll see another performance equal to her performance here this week," Scrap Yard coach Gerry Glasco said. "The heart and the guts she showed, the tenacity on the mound in the heat, in the humidity, weather delays. It's a phenomenal performance, and, I think, one of the greatest performances in the history of softball."

Also the associate head coach at Texas A&M, Glasco is known to be a keen recruiter. He knows his way around some well-spun sentences. But he also has a point. Sunday was special.

There is no easy way to beat Abbott. She isn't merely the best pitcher in her sport; she is one of the most dominant athletes relative to her peers this side of Katie Ledecky, Serena Williams or the Connecticut women's basketball team. So while the Pride entered the final series as the favorite, the regular-season champion by nine games in a season that stretched only 50 games, they were the team that had to prove up to the challenge. Stocked with former All-Americans, not to mention the current league MVP, they were still the team that had to react.

The Pride did that for a night, which is why Abbott's long Sunday was actually only part of her marathon. Having beaten Abbott twice in the regular season, two of her only three losses, the top seed broke through with a Megan Wiggins home run late and won Saturday's series opener.

Though it has turned over from the days of Olympians like Jessica Mendoza and Natasha Watley to mostly more recent college stars, the Pride still have the deepest lineup in the sport. They also have valuable experience for this particular matchup in Wiggins and league MVP Kelly Kretschman -- Wiggins a foe in the Japanese professional league and former teammate with the Bandits and Kretschman as a former Olympic teammate and longtime NPF foe. Both were in the middle of the run scoring Saturday, aided by teammates who followed their lead.

Batting against Abbott is a physical challenge, to try and catch up to a rise ball unlike any other and then not fall victim to a changeup. But it is also a mental challenge to deal with failure. Either one can prove a batter's undoing. Either can be the toughest part of facing her.

"It depends on the day," Wiggins said after the opening win. "She's a tough pitcher day in and day out. That's what makes it so fun to compete against her in the circle mentally and physically. If you get a walk, it's a win. If you get a hit by pitch, it's a win. If you get a little bunt, it's a win. So being able to feed off anything and everything that we can, small victories."

Now look at Sunday's first game, the game the Dawgs had to win just to force the finale. Twice Wiggins and Kretschman led off innings by reaching base in succession. Twice Abbott struck out the next three batters: Kirsti Merritt, Shelby Pendley and Chelsea Goodacre. And on both occasions her physical reaction, far more pronounced than what she normally allows, spoke to her focus on snuffing out those small victories.

"I've never seen Monica have so much emotion on the mound," said Scrap Yard outfielder Nerissa Myers, who also played with Abbott in Chicago. "I'm not a player who shows a lot of emotion, but it brought a lot of emotion out of me. She led us through these three games."

A lengthy rain delay meant Saturday's game didn't start until 8:30 p.m. local time. That, in turn, meant that while she competed against six pitchers taking turns in the circle for the Pride, Abbott pitched 18 1/3 innings and threw 361 pitches in about 22 hours. Not unheard of in the sport but rarely, if ever, with similar stakes against as good a lineup and in such tough conditions.

"I want to be the one," Abbott said. "I know that if I'm standing on the mound I can give my team the best chance to win a ballgame. After last night -- I was frustrated last night. And I thought about it this morning and last night and I was like 'Man, I've just got to do a better job of giving my team a chance to win. If I can get to Game 3, I know my offense will pick me up.' "

Cooper obliged. One of three starters for Scrap Yard who also played for Team USA this summer -- the franchise taking the initiative for an important step forward in relations between the league and the national team -- Cooper was around long enough to have only 17 at-bats in the regular season. But after getting ever so slightly under a ball in the first inning of the finale, what might otherwise have been a home run dying on the warning track, she didn't miss a millimeter of the sweet spot when she powered a home run over the right-field fence in the top of the sixth inning. That turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. The Dawgs added some insurance, but a lead of any kind with six outs to go was all Abbott needed to finish the effort.

It was also inescapable this weekend, all the more because of the performance, that a following commensurate with the quality of the product on the field is still elusive.

The games at Tiger Park were played in front of fences devoid of sponsor logos, and not for any lack of interest in selling the space. The games were streamed in conjunction with MLB.com and The Olympic Channel, but this marked the first time in three years that the league had no regular-season television deal of any kind.

Attendance wasn't what LSU draws for an SEC rival, and the crowd dwindled to almost nothing as the hours wore on in the heat Sunday, but there was atmosphere. Even after a rain delay that preceded the opening game of the championship series on Saturday night, fans still filled most of the grandstand seats and spilled out onto the grassy terraces that offer more casual outfield seating. Both this event and last season's edition at the University of Alabama drew well compared to previous neutral-site efforts. But the league was here on a one-year contract. Next year's site is unknown.

Among the most confounding part is that the league still struggles to reach the established market of softball fans, those who watch the college game on television and flock to events like the Mary Nutter Classic, a large in-season college tournament near Palm Springs, California.

"You go somewhere and you love the food, you have to support it or it's going away," NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf said. "So I think people sometimes underestimate their individual and collective impact on something by supporting it -- by clicking and turning on the video, by coming to a game or just by engaging through social media or whatever. That was a surprise to me [in the job]. I didn't expect to not have softball people with you sometimes, waving the flag."

If Glasco's assessment of Sunday's place in the history of softball pitching wasn't hyperbole, it would be to suggest the day will be a turning point for the sport. But the product on the field continues to get better, the four days in Baton Rouge full of the best softball in the world.

Led by the best pitcher in the game, one of the most dominant athletes in American sports.

"I knew the impact I could have on this sport, and the impact I could have on the greater Houston area with this franchise," Abbott said. "I was so proud to be able to bring that championship home to the Dawgs this season."