Five burning questions for NPF playoffs

Jessica Mendoza takes a break from the batting cages to talk about the NPF playoffs and balancing her busy schedule.

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The Ballpark at Rosemont, located at 27 Jennie Finch Way in Rosemont, Ill., hosts the National Pro Fastpitch championship beginning Thursday. The Chicago Bandits and USSSA Pride squared off in each of the past two championship series, with the Bandits coming out on top last season, but the league is still looking for its first back-to-back champion in its ninth season.

1. How does this work?

With only four teams in the league, every team qualifies for the postseason. No. 1 seed USSSA Pride will face No. 4 seed Akron Racers in one best-of-three semifinal series, while the No. 2 seed Chicago Bandits will face the No. 3 seed Carolina Diamonds in another. The winners will advance to the best-of-three championship series.

That's easy enough, but there is a potentially significant advantage to be gained in taking care of business quickly in the semifinals, particularly when it comes to pitching rotations. If a team sweeps its semifinal series Thursday and Friday, it earns a full day of rest Saturday before playing the first game of the championship series that night. But if a third game is needed to settle a semifinal series, it will be played Saturday afternoon.

2. Why are the USSSA Pride the team to beat?

It took some time, but the Pride finally started playing like their roster suggests they should, closing with a 23-4 stretch after an 8-8 start. From a pure talent standpoint, no team matches a lineup that can offer some combination of Natasha Watley, Caitlin Lowe and Ashley Charters at the top of the order and Jessica Mendoza, Kelly Kretschman, Kristyn Sandberg and Andrea Duran in the middle of the order. Jenn Salling, Lauren Lappin, Megan Willis, Francesca Enea, Kelsey Bruder and Charlotte Morgan are the other familiar options available to coach Beth Torina. Almost everyone in that group is either an Olympian or a former SEC player of the year.

Graham Hays

Caitlin Lowe is just one of the USSSA Pride's top-of-the-lineup weapons, making her squad the team to beat.

And for all of that, offense isn't even the Pride's greatest asset. In addition to Cat Osterman, who went 9-4 with a league-best 0.72 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 97 2/3 innings in the regular season, the Pride can call on Danielle Lawrie (8-2, 2.65 ERA, 83 strikeouts in 66 innings) or Sarah Pauly (8-2, 2.50 ERA, 51 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings). The Pride allowed just 95 earned runs this season. No other team allowed fewer than 184.

3. What about the Chicago Bandits?

The Bandits are the only two-time champions in NPF history, winning in 2008 and again last season. They have the league's most dominant pitcher this season in Monica Abbott, who finished the regular season with a 14-3 record, a 1.06 ERA and 190 strikeouts in 125 2/3 innings. And they are playing at home for the first time in any postseason.

All of the above points to another opportunity to deny the Pride, but the Bandits first need to reclaim their own momentum. For a time this season it appeared the Bandits would be playing at home as the No. 1 seed in August. They roared out of the gates with a 13-3 start, including a 7-1 record against the rival Pride. As the math suggests with a 25-19 final record, it wasn't exactly smooth sailing after that. Abbott is still Abbott and will see as many innings as possible this weekend, but the offense provided by up-and-down bats like Alisa Goler, Kristen Butler and Tammy Williams will make or break the repeat bid.

4. Could the Carolina Diamonds spoil the championship rematch?

Seven pitchers started at least 10 games with ERAs under 4.00 in the regular season. All but one of them pitch for the Pride or Bandits. The exception is Diamonds ace Katie Burkhart, whose 8-10 record isn't nearly as accurate a measure of her performance this season as her 2.86 ERA and 119 strikeout in 117 1/3 innings.

A big reason the Diamonds were able to improve by 11 wins over last season comes down to having a permanent home in North Carolina, rather than playing all of their games on the road. A coaching change provided a new voice after a 2-10 start, with Lisa Navas replacing Teresa Wilson. But the presence of a legitimate ace in Burkhart, the NPF's best pitcher in 2008 who is back in the league after a season's absence, can't be underestimated. The Diamonds have plenty of offense, leading the league in home runs, but they also know they have a chance to win any game Burkhart pitches.

5. Who are five players you need to know?

Rachel Folden, Diamonds: You wouldn't think Folden has much to prove. The NPF veteran enters the postseason second in the league in batting average and third in home runs, par for the course for a player who was the 2008 NPF Rookie of the Year and has 41 career home runs. But Folden's first four seasons came with the Bandits, providing plenty of incentive to show the folks in Chicago she's still one of the league's best hitters.

Amber Patton, Bandits: Owner Bill Sokolis said he doesn't make a point of signing local products to play for the Bandits, but Patton is one of the best of a healthy contingent of players with either hometown or college ties to the Chicago area. The former DePaul standout is one of the league's best slap hitters (seventh in batting average and tied for first in steals), a trusted glove at third base and one of the clubhouse leaders for the champs.

Kristyn Sandberg, Pride: It's not easy to make the Pride as a rookie, let alone make a contribution, but Sandberg managed both in her first season out of Georgia. Whether at first base, catcher or designated player, her bat makes her a must-start somewhere in the lineup. She's hitting .355 with seven home runs and league-best 33 RBIs.

Kristina Thorson, Racers: In a tournament in which the other teams can trot out Abbott, Osterman and Burkhart, you aren't going far without pitching. That's been an issue for the Racers, who have four options but no clear answer in the circle. The league's top rookie in 2007, a champion in 2008 and an ace who went 9-3 with a 2.12 ERA as recently as last season, Thorson has the experience to rise to the occasion after a tough regular season.

Megan Wiggins, Bandits: The second-year outfielder wasn't immune to the overall offensive funk that settled over the Bandits, but she's the most dangerous hitter in the lineup with 12 home runs and a 1.016 OPS. She's also worth watching if she faces Lawrie. Wiggins nearly precipitated a bench-clearing incident earlier this season after taking exception to getting hit by Lawrie, who does have a history of plunking the former University of Georgia star.

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