Oh, and she plays a mean center field too. (photo courtesy Cal Softball Facebook page)
It was a weekend that ended up being much, much longer than anticipated. But it doesn't matter what sport it is - there's a Cal way to do things. For the undisputed #1 in the country softball Bears, it was surprising loss to Arkansas that meant three straight elimination games.
That loss is the big weird story of the weekend. It wasn't a fun game to watch in part because the Bears seemed destined to break the game open constantly but never found the breakthrough hit. The Bears had 12 base runners in seven innings, but the one crushing blow was elusive. Val juuust got under one ball and sent it to the warning track rather than over the fence. Brianna Kostreba hit a rocket that the right fielder had to leap on the run to grab with the bases loaded. It felt like every hard hit ball was in the general direction of a Razorback defender.
And to their credit, Arkansas made almost every single defensive play, both routine and non-routine. A decent portion of Cal's offense is the ability of certain players to put extreme pressure on the defense with pure, unadulterated speed. That speed ate up Iona on Friday night, but the Razorbacks handled it extremely well on Saturday. It was that defense that allowed Arkansas pitchers to escape jam after jam with minimal damage, allowing the Razorbacks to make their early 3-0 lead stand up.
I, like every other Cal fan, was concerned. On one hand, the Bears are the best team in the country and they've won three (or more) games in a row plenty of times this year. On the other hand, the idea that such a special season could end in just one game was frightening.
Turns out we didn't have any reason to fret. As Avi pointed out yesterday, Cal outscored everybody 25-2 from that point forward.
The Bears mercy-ruled Boston on Saturday night, so obviously the offense got going again. But for my money it was the best game that Jolene Henderson pitched all weekend. Her change up was unbelievable all game long. Every time she threw it there were only two results: a swinging strike or a weak, weak tapper to her sister at 3rd for an easy put out. The pitch was unhittable. There are few things more impressive than watching a pitcher break down the batter with a killer change-up. The swings are so weak as the batter tries to slow down their own swing after they mistime the pitch. Magnificent.
So the Bears eliminated Boston, setting up what we all hoped would be a double header sweep of Arkansas. And what a sweep it would be.
The only major change between Saturday and Sunday was the decision to move Frani Echavarria from 9th in the lineup to clean-up. That seems like a pretty huge leap, but Frani was batting 9th because Coach Ninemire likes her speed and ability to get on base in front of the top of the lineup, like she's a 2nd leadoff hitter. But after rapping out five hits in three games, including two doubles in the loss to Arkansas it was clear that Frani was the hottest hitter on the team. Who better to have up right after they walk Val over and over and over again?
And all Frani proceeded to do was collect nine total bases, six RBIs, two runs and of course the grand slam that turned a four run lead into a mercy rule victory. It's got to be one of the greatest batting performances in Cal softball playoff history. Frani was practically enough by herself but her teammates collected an additional nine hits and six walks, and other than a two run home run in the 3rd Jolene was rock solid. On to regional game seven!
The Bears didn't waste any time at all, keeping the pressure on Arkansas with three runs in the 1st and three runs in the 2nd. The biggest blow was from DH Britt Vonk, who had all of 1 career home run prior Sunday. But she picked the right time for her 2nd. Typically a slap hitter, she powered the ball well up into the centerfield bleachers and the game was never in doubt the rest of the way.
And that's because, pitching in her 5th game, Jolene was . . . well, her usual self but more so? The change up still dazzled, the fast ball was still popping, and the defense behind her was excellent. Hard hit balls were a rarity from a team that can hit the long ball.
Cal's defense is so consistently excellent. Arkansas beat Cal in part because they caught everything . . . but they didn't catch everything on Sunday. Cal caught everything every day. Jamia Reid had two spectacular plays down the right field line, one of which required her to take a shot to the gut from the fence. The left side of the infield never bobbled the ball, and the throw was always accurate. Fans always tend to take defense for granted, but it's a huge reason that Cal's pitchers have been so wildly successful.
On we move to the Super-regionals, which will be the first opportunity for many Cal fans to watch this team in action. Yes, that's right - ESPN will be in town to watch the Bears tangle with Washington. It took a bit longer than we thought for the Bears to punch their ticket, but who's going to turn down the chance to play a few more games?