- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- On a day when the best senior pitcher in the country finally looked mortal in the circle at the Women's College World Series, Ali Gardiner's salvation and Alabama's sorrow showed just how human success and failure are.
Her team trailing 5-2 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Florida senior lofted a deep drive down the left-field line. Hitless in nine at-bats in this year's World Series at the time, and owning just three hits in her past 34 at-bats overall, there was every reason to think Gardiner's ball would settle into a glove for the final out, sending the teams on to a winner-take-all second game later in the evening.
Even Gardiner admitted she didn't think the ball was gone when it left her bat.
But instead of settling into another of the near misses that make slumps what they are, the ball drifted a few feet, perhaps only a few inches, more and carried over the temporary fence just more than 190 feet from home plate. And when left fielder Whitney Larsen's leap sent her tumbling head over heels over the waist-high fence empty-handed, Gardiner had a walk-off grand slam that sent Florida swarming into a Gator-pile on top of home plate in celebration of a 6-5 win against its softball archrival.
"I've been working to try to get out of my own head all week," Gardiner said. "I felt like I've never had to work harder to just get a base hit. So my last at-bat, I just went up there, cleared my mind and just was trying to make good contact and find a way on."
Alabama chased Gators ace Stacey Nelson after five innings, or at least forced her to engage in a strategic retreat in advance of duty in a possible second game. Nelson had allowed just three hits in two starts in Oklahoma City, shutting out both Michigan and Arizona, the latter with the most prolific offense in the country. But in the fifth game this season between these two teams, the Crimson Tide got to her for eight hits, a walk and four earned runs.
Nelson has earned a place as one of the game's all-time greats, but on this night, the Gators were another team in a World Series full of offense that had to count on its bats.
Gracious in defeat, Crimson Tide coach Pat Murphy nevertheless noted that he felt his team outplayed the Gators throughout the game, only to fall prey to a couple of long balls (Kelsey Bruder opened the scoring for the Gators with a two-run home run in the fourth). It wasn't an assessment Florida coach Tim Walton was inclined to disagree with, but after scoring three runs in their first two games, the Gators simply got the hits they needed.
"I've been coaching softball now for 11 years, and in my 11 years, I've never seen a team with so much determination and fight," Walton said. "No matter if we're getting outplayed, outhit, outscored, it doesn't matter; we always know we're going to have a chance with the nine hitters that we hit one through nine and the two that we come off the bench with and have five more ready. I've never seen a team, you know, in any sport, have more determination, more class and just play the game the right way than the group of kids I get to coach."
In his fourth season in Gainesville, Walton is largely responsible for the punching power of a program that looks like it will maintain a place as one of the sport's heavyweights. But in a senior class that is a mix of players recruited by the previous regime (including Nelson) and early additions Walton made before his name opened any door he knocked on (including UNC-Wilmington transfer Gardiner) is the root of the program's identity.
"The seniors mean a lot to me," Walton said. "It's one of those classes -- sometimes you're ready for kids to graduate and other times you're just happy to see them develop. And I'm really happy to see them develop. And I'm really happy to see how well they've developed. Not only as athletes -- you guys see only a little bit of it. They play like this because they're good people. They get it."
Of course, if those are traits that go hand in hand with success, they are not traits exclusive to the team with more runs on the scoreboard in any given game. Just as the Gators greeted their conquering senior with a celebration of such ferocity that it cost the team a collective six earrings to the dirt at Hall of Fame Stadium, the Crimson Tide consoled their own seniors, the most successful class in the program's illustrious history.
"I thought it was a very entertaining game for the fans; it was just a great day for softball," a choked-up Murphy said after the game, three of his players clustered close to his side, rather than in front of the name cards spaced out across the news conference podium. "I think our team fought to the very end, and that's what we asked them to do right after the loss to Michigan [on Thursday] to show everyone what kind of team we have."
Like Gardiner at Florida, Alabama senior Lauren Parker found a home after playing her freshman year at another school. The Baylor transfer played in two World Series in three seasons for the Crimson Tide. As is the case with sports, Gardiner's magical moment came with an equal and opposite reaction for the team on the other side. But it did not come without import of its own, even if it felt like the end of days for at least one night.
"Obviously, I'm upset," Parker said. "But we couldn't have done more. We fought to the end. We've fought all season long and faced adversity all season long. We just came out and showed what we had and did what we needed to do to fight. Obviously, it didn't work out our way, but you learn a lot from the game. I'm going to take a lot of things from the game, especially today's game. There's more fight in you."
Murphy was right; it was a very entertaining game -- a game Walton echoed was the best he had ever been a part of. It was also a reminder that the magic and redemption sports offer exist only because people care enough for defeat to hurt. Otherwise, the goose bumps wouldn't be so big when a senior in her final week of softball breaks a slump at precisely the right moment.
"I've never seen either of my parents cry in my entire life," Gardiner said. "And just to see that, my dad especially, who I've worked with ever since I was a little girl -- and that his dream was always to see me in a Gator uniform and that I was here. And that I was able to push our team to where we wanted to go, it means a lot."
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.