Lisle, Ill.-- The battle of the top-two teams in National Pro Fastpitch lived up to its championship setting. After trailing by four runs early in the game, the Akron Racers took the 2005 NPF Championship in a 5-4, eight-inning championship game.
With two outs in the top of the first, two-time Olympic gold medalist Crystl Bustos earned the first hit of the game, when she looped a two-out single to right field. If any other batter had been up, it probably would have been an out, but Bandits right fielder Liz Bouck had set up on the warning track with the NPFs homerun champion up to bat. However the Akron third baseman was stranded at first when Oli Keohohou grounded out to Vicky Galindo at third.
Galindo led off the home half of the first with a base on balls, and promptly stole second. Chicago second baseman Gina Oaks followed with a sacrifice bunt, but the Racers unsuccessfully attempted to cut down Galindo at third, allowing Oaks to reach.
Shortstop Jaime Clark was hit by a pitch to load the bases for semifinal hero Jennie Finch. A night after the designated player hit a walk-off three run homer, the Olympic gold medalist again delivered driving a single through the box, scoring Galindo. Clark got hung up on the lay when Oaks stopped abruptly at third.
Next Bandits catcher Selena Collins drove a ball deep to the centerfield warning-track, which scored Oaks from third, and allowed Finch to advance to third.
First baseman Christina Enea followed with the second walk of the inning, which brought up centerfielder Megan Ciolli with two on and two down. After Enea stole second, the former Fighting Irish star slapped one to shortstop Kristin Johnson, but the speedy Ciolli was able to beat throw, with allowed Finchs run to count, moving the score to a 3-0 Bandit lead. Ciolli was thrown out trying to steal second to end the inning.
Gold-medal winning catcher Jenny Topping led off the Racers half of the second with a walk, which was followed by two pop-outs. However, with two down in the inning, left fielder Kelly Kretschman reached on an infield single, to put two on with two down.
Racer second baseman Hilary Puglia came up next and laid down a bunt right at Enea. The first baseman turned to the bag, but no one was covering, which allowed Puglia to reach and load the bases.
However, after being the victim of some inefficient fielding, Bay stepped up and ended the threat herself by striking out centerfielder Iyhia McMichael to leave three Racers stranded.
Bouck led off the inning with a walk and was followed by an infield bunt single by Anne Steffan. Bustos fielded the bunt and threw wildly drawing the covering Puglia off the bag. A collision between Puglia and Steffan followed jarring the ball loose. With the ball rolling in foul territory, Bouck advanced to third and Steffan to second.
After Galindo lined out to left, Jaime Southern entered the circle to face Oaks. The Bandits second baseman earned her second sacrifice of the game, when drove a ball to mid-left field. Kretschman caught the ball and fired home with Bouck tagging. The ball beat Bouck and Topping applied the tag, but the umpire ruled that the catcher was illegally blocking the plate without the ball, resulting in Bouck being awarded home plate.
After Clark reached on a walk, with the ball back in Southerns hands, she rounded the base and stopped and retreated to first, only to be called out by the first base umpire. Clark fell victim to the look-back rule, which requires that once the ball is back in the pitching circle, a runner must commit to the next base or stay on their previous one. Since Clark began towards second and stopped she was called out, ending the inning.
Despite a one-out walk to Bustos, the Racers where unable to break the seal and score a run.
After Finch struck out to lead of the frame, Collins drove a ball into the right-center gap, and scampered into second base, but the next two batters failed to advance the lead-off runner.
In the top of the fourth Kretschman reached first on a bunt single, but was stranded on first.
With one out in the bottom half of the fourth, Steffan was hit by a pitch and stole second, her 24th steal of the year. Galindo followed with a walk, and Southern hit her second batter of the inning, plunking Oaks in the elbow. Radara McHugh replaced Southern in the circle, and Laura Harms replace Oaks on first.
With the bases loaded, Clark struck out looking bringing Finch to the plate with the bases loaded and two down. Finch lifted a ball to shallow centerfield. A charging McMichael attempted to make a basket-catch, but as the ball popped out of her glove, McMichael spun, resecuring the ball to end the inning.
After McMichael lined back to Bay in the circle, Johnson grounded up the middle. A cutting Clark was unable to handle the ball, allowing Johnson to reach first.
Up next, the NPF Offensive Player of the Year, Bustos lined a single to put to runners on for Keohohou. The Akron designated player ripped a double that hit the base of the wall on a fly to score Johnson, and put two runners in scoring position for Topping.
After getting in a 2-0 hole to Topping, Bay fought back to strike out Topping, for the second out of the inning.
With Bustos on third and Nicole Trimboli up to bat , Collins was unable to control a pitch in the dirt, which allowed the runner to score, bringing the score to 4-2. Trimboli eventually walked, which prompted the Bandits
coaching staff to bring Finch into the game to pitch.
The first batter Finch faced, Racer right fielder Lindsey Bashor, ripped a single off Galindos glove, scoring Keohohou, pulling Akron within a run at 4-3.
The Bandits went down in order in the fifth, and with two outs Johnson placed a single just out of the reach of a diving Clark. But with two down and the tying run on base, Bustos popped out to left field to end the inning.
With two outs in the bottom sixth, Galindo lifted a ball into short centerfield. Three fielders converged, but as the collided, the ball fell safely, and Galindo motored into second with a double. However, she was stranded at second, and the Bandits took a one-run lead into the seventh.
After Galindo threw out Keohohou, Topping took a 2-2 Finch offering to right field. The ball carried over the head of Bouck. The Akron players began coming out of the dugout in celebration, but the ball hit off the yellow molding on the top of the fence. Topping was replaced by Jackie Poggendorf on second.
Again down in the count, Trimboli hit a shot off to second base that Steffan was unable to corral. As the ball scooted into right field, Poggendorf raced around to tie the game at four.
With the score now tied, the heart of the Bandits order took to the plate, with Team USA member Jaime Clark up first. After fouling off six straight inside pitches, Clark was fooled by a pitch on the outside corner, for a called third strike.
In a scenario similar the semifinal game, Finch came up, knowing that a home run would win the game, and this time the NPF title. Despite her previous night heroics, Finch hit a soft-liner off the end of the bat to right field for the second out of the inning.
In two previous at bats in the game, Collins had flown out to the warning track. A little extra power in her seventh inning at bat, and the game would be over, but the Chicago catcher never got a chance to swing as she was walked to bring up Enea.
Down 1-2 in the count, the former Oklahoma Sooner came up in the clutch, lifting a bloop-single into centerfield, allowing Collins to advance to third, just 60 feet from the NPF title, with Ciolli up to bat.
The Bandits centerfielder put the ball in play, but Johnson calmly collected the ball at short and threw out Ciolli to take the game to extra innings.
After Puglia struck out looking, McMichael took a full-count offering from Finch and deposited on the other side of the left field fence, giving the Racers their first lead of the game, at 5-4.
In the home half of the eighth, Bouck led off by dragging to Bustos, who threw to first for the first out of the inning.
Up next, Steffan struck out looking, giving the Bandits only one more out to mount a comeback. Leadoff batter Galindo took to the box with the game on the line. To the ire of the Racers fans in attendance, Galindo worked the count full before McHugh threw ball four, to bring the game-winning run to the plate, in the form of Harms.
Again McHugh went full on the Bandits batter, but this time, Harms was unable to deliver swinging at a pitch, to end the game and give the National Pro Fastpitch Championship to the Akron Racers.