Florida's softball team beat Nebraska, 9-8, in the 2013 Women's College World Series on Saturday night, staving off WCWS elimination and keeping its season alive for at least another day — well, another day in Oklahoma City, anyway. Back in the Eastern Time Zone, it was 12:24 a.m. when Nebraska runner Taylor Edwards was tagged out at third in the bottom of the 15th inning, securing the Gators' win in the longest game in program history, the longest game in the modern era of the Women's College World Series, and the longest WCWS game since 1992.
This was an epic, about as great a game as sports can produce. And words won't do it justice.
That has a lot to do with how quickly it snapped from just another game between great teams into a game that hung on every pitch. Both teams breezed through the early innings, with neither scoring until the bottom of the fourth, when Nebraska pushed two runs across on an errant Taylor Schwarz throw, Florida's lone error of the night, and a single by shortstop Alicia Armstrong. Florida's response was swift and loud, a six-run barrage in the top of the fifth inning that included just three hits, all singles and all wrapped around one stretch of three straight fielder's choices on balls.
Nebraska added its third run in the bottom of the sixth inning on a Hailey Decker homer, but went to the bottom of the seventh inning trailing 6-3, with Florida's Hannah Rogers still mostly in command. All hell broke loose in short order.
Nebraska pinch-hitter Kylee Muir singled to get on with one out, and was immediately removed from the game for pinch-runner Jordan Bettiol. Nebraska starting pitcher Tatum Edwards then served Rogers' next pitch to center, where Kirsti Merritt initially seemed to fail to make a sensational catch, letting it drop for a hit. Merritt threw to first, where Edwards came off the bag, after the play — and, had the play on the field been ruled a catch, as replay indicated it might well have actually been, that could have been the last out of the game, and sealed a 6-3 Florida win at 9:23 p.m. Eastern.
But this game was destined for more greatness than that.
Rogers next issued a nine-pitch walk to Gabby Banda that loaded the bases, then gave up an RBI single to Taylor Edwards on the eight pitch of that at-bat that cut Florida's lead to 6-4. When Brooke Thomason flied out to center, scoring Tatum Edwards, it could have set the stage for a game-winning two-out hit, but, instead, Nebraska scored a second run on the same play after Merritt's throw home begat Aubree Munro's throw to second begat a throw to third baseman Stephanie Tofft, who had Banda trapped in a rundown between third and home.
Banda turned and sprinted home. So did Tofft. With 10 or so feet to go, Tofft dove and/or tripped, but managed to get her glove on Banda's cleat, tripping Banda — but did so with the ball coming out of the glove, enabling Banda, a senior, to score the game-tying run on a play she visibly appeared to believe marked the end of her college career.
Suddenly, minutes after what could have been a game-ending double play on a fantastic defensive play, Florida faced a tie game, and the prospect of a walk-off loss. Rogers got a foulout to deep left from the next batter, but Nebraska had struck, and decisively: Florida had a four-run lead, and multiple best shots to finish the Cornhuskers in the seventh, but could not pull it off.
As the game ticked into extra innings, momentum seemed to stay with Nebraska. Florida had one base-runner in the first two bonus frames, but didn't seriously threaten to score; Nebraska match that tally in its first two innings, but made good contact on relief pitcher Lauren Haeger's stuff, lifting a couple of well-hit balls deep.
In the 10th inning, Florida's Briana Little swatted a solo homer to left off Nebraska reliever Emily Lockman seconds after ESPN's Holly Rowe finished a sideline report about Florida's team wristbands, which have the Finnish term sisu, a shorthand for will and determination, on the inside. But just minutes after Little's teammates welcomed her and their 7-6 lead at home plate, with all their many colorful pieces of rally gear on, Nebraska answered: Taylor Edwards cranked a Haeger pitch to deep center for a leadoff homer in the bottom of the 10th, tying the game at 7-7.
And Nebraska's threat wasn't over: A double and two walks loaded the bases with two outs for the Huskers. Haeger summoned enough to escape, striking out Mattie Fowler and getting Bettiol to line out to short, but Nebraska seemed to have snatched back the lion's share of the ambient hope available, and was hitting Haeger hard.
It fizzled. Both teams traded scoreless frames in the 11th (no runners reached second), 12th (Florida got three flyouts), 13th (Tofft got to second with two outs, but no ball reached play after that point), and 14th, when Florida got its first runner to third since loading the bases six innings prior only to have a Merritt grounder squander the scoring chance and Nebraska put runners on first and second with two outs before an inning-ending foulout on a fantastic catch from Katie Medina, who made a few spectacular defensive plays on the evening. (The 14th also occasioned my temporary break from lower-case letters on Twitter.)
The 15th, though? The 15th cemented this game as a legendary one.
Florida struck first in the top of the inning, with the spark coming from an unusual usual suspect: Haeger, Florida's best slugger, entered the game and the inning mired in a deep slump, but smacked a double to right with one out, and smartly legged out the second 60 feet despite having spent the last seven innings on the mound. Jessica Damico followed that with a single to short, bringing up Taylore Fuller.
The freshman catcher came through, grounding sharply to second and forcing a quick throw by Armstrong that went wide of first base. Haeger scored, as she would have on the grounder, but a hustling Damico scored from first on the error, and Fuller tried to take third, only to collide with Nebraska's Banda, who played with a severely torn ACL throughout 2012 and was playing without that ACL in 2013, and get called out. Banda was clearly shaken up on the play, but would remain in the game. My inclusion of this detail is called foreshadowing.
Florida stayed on the attack in the 15th, with Taylor Schwarz and Little each singling to get on with two outs, but Medina grounded back to the pitcher, ending the Gators' half-inning after it produced a 9-7 lead. Nebraska would have to get two runs in the bottom of the 15th to extend the game, which had long passed Florida's many 12-inning affairs to become the longest game in Florida history.
That almost happened.
Florida brought Rogers back in for the 15th, taking advantage of a rule that allows players to re-enter softball games that I won't even pretend to understand — Tatum Edwards also took back the bump for Nebraska in the 11th inning, and would throw an unfathomable 185 pitches on the night in addition to going 2-for-6 at the plate. In doing so, Florida coach Tim Walton was giving his ace a chance, in the first minutes of June 2 on the East Coast, to close a game she started a little after 7 p.m. on the East Coast and left some eight innings before.
It looked like a poor choice immediately, as Rogers yielded a leadoff double to Armstrong on the first pitch of the inning and a grounder that advanced Armstrong to third moments after. Another grounder scored Armstrong, but it put the Huskers in a two-out hole, and left Rogers with a clean set of bases to work with.
Tatum Edwards drew a seven-pitch walk to take first, and up came Banda, twice over a hero of the night, representing the game-winning run. And she put the ball in play, singling past Medina. But Nebraska, blessed by base-running earlier on the night, was bit by it in the fateful final moment: Edwards attempted to take third on the hit, only to run into Tofft, the goat of the ninth inning, blocking third like Johnny Bench at the plate, snagging a throw from Damico, and successfully tagging Edwards out.
After 116 at-bats, 536 pitches, more than five hours, and more and better twists than anything M. Night Shymalan has written, Florida's season was alive and Nebraska's was dead. But this game, this game that was half prelude and half pure gold, will live forever.
Florida moves on to another elimination game on Sunday, and will face Texas at noon Central time, slightly less than 13 hours after vanquishing Nebraska. And, to be frank, I expect Florida to lose that game, because I can't fathom the Gators having enough strength left to play another game at this level of intensity, or enough magic left in the bank to compensate for a strength deficiency.
Haeger, in a postgame interview with Rowe, shrugged off those concerns, despite admitting she couldn't feel her pitching arm. "I think, all my life, I've wanted this moment right now," she said, clearly aware of its enormity. "We'll be fine. If we can go through this, we can go through anything."
But I want to believe in this team beyond what my brain tells me is rational. And Haeger's most perfect quote, one that will live as long as the memories of this game, allows me to do that, no matter what:
"We never don't fight," she said. And I believe it.