Battery-powered Bandits a win from repeat

Graham Hays/ESPN.com

Chicago players celebrate after Shannon Doepking's two-run homer staked the Bandits to a 2-0 lead.

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The Ballpark at Rosemont, home of the Chicago Bandits and host of the NPF championship series, is located at 27 Jennie Finch Way, so named for the most famous player in the history of the franchise.

At this rate, the team is going to need naming rights for an entire intersection.

Monica Abbott Boulevard and Jennie Finch Way might never have the same ring to it in this area as Clark and Addison, two of the streets bordering Wrigley Field, but Abbott is quickly working her way into such matters of urban planning.

Saturday night, she shut down the biggest, baddest lineup in softball to steer the Bandits to a 2-1 win against the USSSA Pride in the opening game of the best-of-three championship series.

With one more win Sunday, Abbott will claim a third NPF title, a feat neither Cat Osterman, her opponent this night, nor Jennie Finch, watching from the stands, managed from amongst the pantheon of pitching greats.

Yet at least this once, the other half of Abbott's softball existence emerged from her shadow to claim a share of the spotlight. Bandits catcher Shannon Doepking quietly went about her work as the silent partner in the pitching battery, just as she has done since she arrived at the University of Tennessee in 2005 and listened to Abbott, a year older, tell the freshman she was going to have to get lower in her stance to catch what she was throwing.

Graham Hays/ESPN.com

Bandits pitcher Monica Abbott had a shutout until giving up a solo homer in the seventh.

It was Doepking who delivered a two-run home run that made Abbott a winner in a pitching duel with Osterman on Saturday. And it was Doepking mobbed by teammates as she touched home plate.

They may never name a road after Doepking, but fans here will remember her name. Which is all she really wanted.

"I've always been Monica's catcher," Doepking said. "And I think going into last year, for myself, I wanted to be Shannon Doepking. It's been such a luxury catching her, her being my best friend and all, but for me personally, [hitting] was such a big part of my game to prove myself that I wasn't just Monica's catcher; I'm Shannon Doepking. I can catch, and I can hit."

Like their counterparts for the Pride who share a similar relationship, Osterman and Megan Willis, Abbott and Doepking have been together almost without interruption since college. Together they broke college records, experienced competitive heartbreak more than once in the Women's College World Series and celebrated a championship with the Bandits last season. They are a team within a team at this point.

"Having coached them now for two years, they give each other a look and they're on the same page," Bandits associate coach Mike Steuerwald said. "Jenna [Grim] had a chance to catch Monica the other week in Akron, and she had to go out a few times and talk to her, and it was a little bit different. But these two, whether it's practice, games, whatever it is, they can be on the same page. They know how to fix whatever is wrong right away.

"Shannon is basically a pitching coach for Monica out there."

That part of the relationship paid off on a night when Abbott wasn't simply able to overpower hitters, the Pride's lineup too stocked with veteran hitters who know Abbott from both countless NPF games and stints with USA Softball.

When Abbott ran into a spot of trouble earlier in the playoffs against a weaker Carolina Diamonds lineup, losing an early home run on a changeup rather than her trademark rise ball, she said Doepking told her to just come with the power until the Diamonds proved they could hit it. As is so often the case for a pitcher who led the league in strikeouts, that eventuality never happened and the Bandits cruised to victory.

Getting it right on this night required more nuance. Abbott still came early and often with her rise, the Pride sometimes giving into temptation but also holding off as often as not. But she had to pitch to win this one.

"We're able to build off of each other, and we talk things through," Abbott said. "She has a great mind back there as a catcher, and I think she's a student of the game."

The teams traded scoreless frames for the first two innings, and it was the Pride that came closest to breaking through in the early going. Without the benefit of a hit, using an error, a sacrifice bunt, a walk, a passed ball and a stolen base, the Pride ended up with Natasha Watley on third base and Jessica Mendoza on second with one out. But Abbott struck out cleanup hitter Kristyn Sandberg and got Kelly Kretschman to ground out to third.

The breakthrough came in the top of the third. With one on, Doepking got the bat on one of Osterman's drop balls and sent it over the fence in left.

The Pride again put runners in scoring position in the bottom of the inning, again without benefit of a hit, but Caitlin Lowe and Mendoza were stranded when Sandberg flew out to center and Kretschman grounded out to short. They left a runner stranded at second in the fifth and finally broke through on Lauren Lappin's home run in the seventh, but it wasn't enough.

That the Pride even made it to the championship series was an accomplishment in its own right, the answer to a challenge almost as daunting as scratching together runs against a pitcher like Abbott.

Having squandered an early five-run lead in a loss against the Akron Racers on Friday night, the Pride faced those same Racers in an elimination game Saturday afternoon. And after the top of the first inning in the matinee, the top seed faced a five-run deficit of its own, a battering that chased Osterman from the circle before she could record even three outs.

Mendoza cut the deficit to a single run with a grand slam in the bottom of the third, but after the teams then traded runs through the middle innings, the Pride still trailed 7-6 as they came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth. Six outs from the end of their season, the same scenario that sparked Akron's rally a night earlier when in the same position, the Pride answered.

On a 1-0 pitch with two runners on base, Mendoza sent the ball over the fence in left field, an opposite-field, three-run home run to give her team a 9-7 lead that stood up for the win and a spot in the final series.

"I knew they weren't going to really give me anything good to hit, and that anything they were going to give me was going to be low and out," Mendoza said. "I was just mad from my at-bat before [a ground out that ended the fourth] and I had a little bit of nerves because our backs were against the wall. I didn't want to be that hitter that only does it and then we lose; I wanted to do it to win. Sometimes you just see it big, and she threw it where I was looking."

Racers coach Eric Iverson visited pitcher Lisa Norris in the circle just prior to Mendoza's at-bat and said after the game that the plan had been to walk the slugger, an intentional walk in all but the formalities with a runner on first base. After the inning came to a close, Iverson asked the umpire for the location of the pitch Mendoza hit.

Three balls off the plate and down was the answer, a place where few hitters would, or should, think to swing.

She knew full well what awaited her in the evening.

"Monica is definitely somebody that you have to be more selective," Mendoza said before the game against the Bandits. "I don't think I'll hit a pitch three balls outside. For me personally, it's being able to have a plan and know that I'm not expecting to hit a home run off Monica; I'm expecting to put the ball in play. She's just somebody that is very successful but at the same time, that's who we've been ready to face.

"When I'm facing a pitcher in the offseason, when I'm taking batting practice in January, it's [mentally] against Monica Abbott."

So it was only fitting that the opening game came down to Abbott against Mendoza, the hottest hitter in existence with four home runs and 13 RBIs in her previous two games. With a runner on base and two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Mendoza swung late on Abbott's first offering and then watched two pitches catch the corner of the strike zone in the opinion of the only person who mattered behind the plate.

Abbott was good enough on this night, in part because of a big hit from a player who has been a big, if overlooked, part of her success for a long time. Call it a farewell gift.

"I know that I'm going to hang it up this year, this is going to be my last year," Doepking said. "So going out, I'm OK with it now because I think I proved I was an an athlete, I was a softball player, and I wasn't just Monica Abbott's catcher."

She doesn't need anything named after her. She's just fine with people knowing her name.

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