ROSEMONT, Ill. – Jessica Mendoza clubbed two home runs for the second game in a row and drove in seven runs Saturday morning in the third and decisive game of an NPF Championship Series semifinal matchup, leading the No. 1 seed USSSA Pride to a come-from-behind, 9-7 win over the No. 4 seed Akron Racers to advance to Saturday night’s NPF Championship Final Series.
Saturday’s rubber match in the best two-out-of-three semifinal became necessary when the Racers erased a five-run deficit on Friday night. The Pride returned the favor Saturday morning after falling behind by the same margin in the very first inning. The win sends USSSA to the Final Series, which begins at 7 p.m. CT Saturday night against the No. 2 seed Chicago Bandits, which swept the Carolina Diamonds in its semifinal.
After scoring six runs in the sixth inning Friday night to force a rubber match, Akron kept its red hot momentum rolling with a five-run first inning Saturday morning, chasing USSSA Pride ace Cat Osterman from the circle after just two-thirds of a frame.
NPF Offensive Player of the Year Sam Marder, who hit two home runs Friday night, began the Saturday fireworks show with a two-run homer into the tops of the trees lining left-center field. The shot was Marder’s third of the NPF Championship Series. Briana Hesson kept the inning going, singling through the right side and giving way to pinch runner Sharonda McDonald. McDonald stole second, then came around to score when All-NPF choice Nicole Pauly served a single into left for a 3-0 lead.
One out later, Kaylyn Castillo planted an Osterman offering in the MB Financial Party Deck to extend the Racers’ lead to 5-0 and force the Pride to replace Osterman in the circle with Sarah Pauly, who ended the inning. Osterman officially was charged with five runs on four hits and a walk with two strikeouts.
Akron starter Kristina Thorson toed the rubber for the first time with that cushion and breezed through the first two frames before USSSA strung together a grand response in the third. Three-consecutive one-out singles from Lauren Lappin, Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe loaded the bases for Mendoza, who blasted a grand slam to dead center to immediately cut the Pride deficit all the way down to one run, 5-4.
Lisa Norris, who pitched in relief in both of the previous games of this series, entered in that role again following the Mendoza slam, and ending the inning. Thorson’s line was comprised of 2.1 innings of work with four runs on five hits, no walks and two strikeouts.
Akron got one back in the top of the fourth, turning a Nicole Trimboli leadoff double into a run when Kelly Montalvo singled into left-center. The Pride then limited the damage with the defensive play of the Championship Series to this point. Marder roped a liner to center where Lowe laid out to catch it before popping up and throwing a strike to first to double up Montalvo.
USSSA knotted the score with a two-out rally in the fourth from the same three batters who preceded the Mendoza grand slam in the third. Lappin began the rally with a soft single to left before Watley doubled into right. Lowe then singled back through the middle to knock both of them in to make the score 6-6. The 9-1-2-3 batters in the Pride lineup combined to go 10-for-14 in the game with nine RBIs and eight runs scored.
The Racers’ Pauly did not let the tie last, taking the Pride’s Pauly deep for a solo shot in the top of the fifth to again put Akron on top, 7-6.
In the end, there was too much Mendoza for the Racers to overcome. Stepping to the plate with two on and two out in the bottom of the sixth, Mendoza sent her fourth home run of the three-game series and her second of the day to opposite field to put USSSA in the lead for good, 9-7.
In the top of the seventh, Taylor Schlopy hit a two-out single into left for the Racers, but Sarah Pauly got the final batter to ground out to third to end the game. Pauly earned the win in relief, going 6.1 innings and allowing two runs on seven hits and a walk with four strikeouts. Norris took the loss in relief, giving up five runs on seven hits and a walk with three strikeouts in 3.2 innings of work.