Racers force Game 3 against Pride

Get to know key players for the Akron Racers on Day 3 of the National Pro Fastpitch playoffs.

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ROSEMONT, Ill. -- In reality, all the Akron Racers bought themselves Friday night was roughly 14 more hours together.

That is roughly the amount of time between the final out of their 8-7 comeback against the USSSA Pride and the scheduled first pitch of the winner-take-all third game of a semifinal series between the two teams in the National Pro Fastpitch playoffs.

Saturday morning, the scoreboard resets and a team's softball existence again hangs in the balance. The Racers' season might be over by the time you read this, Friday's drama nothing more than a footnote.

Graham Hays

Jessica Mendoza had a triple and two home runs, but it was not enough against the Racers.

But what transpired in the comeback will linger, at least for them, beyond whatever happens next. And, although the Racers didn't win a championship by beating the Pride in the second game of the series, the team that does claim the trophy will offer no stronger endorsement of competition. Maybe a team is what its record says it is, but sports are what they are because you're allowed to believe otherwise.

"We've been saying that our record doesn't reflect who this team is and what our character is," Racers star Sam Marder said. "We weren't going out with a 10-game losing streak. That was for sure."

The Racers trailed 6-1 after two innings against the Pride, the regular-season champions who shut them out in the opening game of the best-of-three series Thursday and beat them 13 times in 16 tries in the regular season. The No. 4-seeded Racers trailed 6-2 after five innings and came to the plate in the top of the sixth knowing they had six outs between them and the end of the season.

"It's tough," Racers shortstop Aja Paculba said. "You're playing against the best team in the world, in the league -- they've got all the best players. And when you see them put a six-spot on you, you're like, 'All right, this is going to be tough.' But I think because we don't know if we get tomorrow, we didn't want it to end today. That helped us. I don't know if it's because of how close we are as a team right now that we stuck together, but this was definitely one of the most memorable wins for us and for me personally."

It was a story that required half a dozen authors to write. It took Marder, the league's offensive player of the year, hitting two home runs, one each off Danielle Lawrie and Cat Osterman, and driving in three runs. It took veteran pitcher Lisa Norris coming on in relief and stymieing the league's best lineup for the second night in a row with a nasty changeup. It took rookie Jessica Garcia, who registered just five at-bats in the regular season, driving in two runs with a pinch-hit single against Osterman in the sixth-inning rally.

And it took Paculba, who loaded the bases with a single in the top of the sixth but also kept the damage at a minimum in the first with two fantastic defensive plays to get the Racers out of the inning down just two runs, ranging far to one side to corral a ground ball and throw out the runner on one play and leaping to make a backhand snare on a hard line drive on another.

Paculba spent last season, her first after a standout career at Florida, as a rookie with the NPF Diamonds. Now the beneficiaries of a permanent home in North Carolina, the Diamonds were then a traveling team that played what would have been their home series at neutral sites around the United States and Canada. It was a grueling schedule for all involved, not the least of them a player coming off a long college season. Paculba hit under .100 in limited action and ended of the season unsure of what was next for her in softball.

She returned to Florida and graduated, then took a job as an assistant softball coach at Florida International. It was in that setting, being around the game every day and seeing players improve before her eyes, that Paculba realized she wanted to keep playing. The Diamonds hadn't re-signed her and the league's signing period was over, but she asked around to see whether anyone needed a middle infielder. Racers co-owner Joey Arrietta called almost immediately and offered her a spot. All Paculba wanted was one more chance to prove to herself.

"I think just being around people who are the best of the best and seeing how they play and learning from them [makes you better]," Paculba said. "In college, you're learning things, it's competitive, but when you're in this league, you're going to fail. You're more mature, and you learn to have fun. That was the biggest thing for me, learning to have fun, relaxing and knowing you're going to fail more than you're going to succeed.

"Once you accept that, your game is going to improve so much."

So it was that the Racers stitched together a rally in the sixth inning. It began quietly enough, a hit batter, a walk and an error pushing across one run before Paculba hit her single off Lawrie and forced Pride coach Beth Torina to call on Osterman out of the bullpen. The lefty ace one-hit the Racers the night before, but Garcia greeted her with a single, Lisa Modglin followed with another single to drive in the tying run and Marder hit her home run to give the Racers an 8-6 lead. In all, the first three hitters Osterman faced saw just four pitches and collected three hits.

"For some reason, it seems like the deeper you go into an at-bat with Cat, the more the ball disappears, at least that's what it seems like to me," Marder said. "So I think everyone was trying to go up there and be aggressive, just attack the first pitch they saw. None of us who play in this league know when our last at-bat is going to be. We don't know when the last time we've ever going to play softball again is. So there wasn't really any time to waste in the sixth inning."

Norris surrendered a late home run to Jessica Mendoza, who finished the game with 11 total bases and six RBIs on the strength of two home runs and a triple, but she was the only batter to reach base for the Pride after the Racers made their move in the sixth inning. After being just six outs from elimination, the Racers are now one win from the championship series.

Reality waits to reclaim the moment, beginning with the decision Racers coach Eric Iverson faces over whether to start Norris after two successful relief stints or call on a fresher arm against a potent Pride lineup. And whichever team wins the elimination game must then deal with a well-rested Monica Abbott in the first game of the championship series later Saturday.

But the point of playing to earn a tomorrow is what it means in the moment. The record shows how often the Racers tried and failed this season. One game showed that isn't always the best measure of a team.

"I don't know how many more times in my life I'm going to get an opportunity to say this, but I think that this win, a lot of it was for Coach [Iverson] sitting next to us," Marder said. "He doesn't really get the respect he deserves and the props he deserves, but what makes this win so great is that we all love playing for him so much. I've never wanted to run through a wall like I have for him."

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