Resiliency keying Alabama's run
OKLAHOMA CITY -- No team knows better than Alabama how much work remains to be done. No pitcher knows better than Alabama ace Kelsi Dunne how quickly the game can tear down what took much longer to build.
And that's why no team and no player will be more appreciative to wake up with no games to play Saturday, the day reserved for play for the six teams that lost during the first two days of play in the Women's College World Series.
Alabama will get to do as it pleases Saturday in Oklahoma City after a 3-0 win against Baylor on Friday night, the team's second shutout in as many days and its fourth in a row in the NCAA tournament.
The Tide's next game won't come until Sunday, and whichever of California, Oklahoma State or Baylor emerges as the opponent on that day will have to beat Alabama twice in the same afternoon to reach the best-of-three championship series.
"I think Kelsi is in a zone right now," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said after his senior pitched six shutout innings for the second day in a row and struck out eight Baylor batters. "It just warms my heart to know that a senior is in that position when it comes to her final performance in her career, and she's doing a great job."
It's a dream scenario for a team familiar with postseason nightmares.
A year ago, one out stood between Alabama and a third consecutive trip to the Women's College World Series when Hawaii's Jenna Rodriguez stunned players and fans alike in Tuscaloosa with a walk-off two-run home run.
Two years ago, one out stood between the Crimson Tide and a winner-take-all semifinal game in the World Series when Florida's Ali Gardiner hit a walk-off grand slam to lift the Gators into the national championship series.
Three years ago, three outs stood between the Tide and a win against Arizona State on the first day of the World Series. A 50-50 call on a ball down the line went the way of the Sun Devils and provided them with the eventual winning runs -- the first of five consecutive wins en route to the Sun Devils winning the national title.
The pitcher on the losing end in all three cases was Dunne, progressing from an untested freshman against the Sun Devils to a familiar figure of absolute pathos as the ball sailed over the fence against Hawaii. No matter that she was a pitcher increasingly responsible for her team being in position for success; the endings defined her.
Dunne's resiliency during the preseason had Murphy comparing her to a movie monster, and like those characters, there was one more sequel to write.
"Throughout the summer, she worked her butt off," senior shortstop Whitney Larsen said. "She came back ready to go. Conditioning, she busted her butt. She did everything that coaches asked of her, everything our strength coach asked of her. Then she took on another role. She took me and everyone else and said, 'You know what, I'm going to lead you all there this year.' And that's what she's done every single game.
"All she does is pitch, and she's amazing at it. When she's on the field, nobody can break her rhythm. She just has been so mentally tough, and I think that's the strongest thing she has going for her."
The buckle-your-knees changeup, wicked curve and diabolical screwball don't hurt, either, but the toughness is her most telling trait. That Dunne wasn't flustered Friday when a long delay kept her standing in the heat during the top of the first as groundskeepers attempted to dry out an overwatered infield was a given. With runners on first and second and one out when play resumed, she needed just four pitches to earn her way into the shade of the dugout.
"We just got together, we relaxed the mood and had some very good timely defense in that inning," Dunne said. "We made some good plays and got out of a jam."
That is Dunne boiled down to a few words, careful, measured and unwilling to take nearly as much credit as she might get blame in defeat. And after all, in the case of the delay against the Bears, a few extra minutes on a day when the temperatures climbed toward triple digits is nothing when you've been burned by the game so many times.
Eight days ago, Dunne seemed destined for another unpleasant ending, down a game in a best-of-three super regional against Stanford after she failed to adjust to a tight strike zone and was let down by a defense that committed three errors. The vocal spark to Dunne's quiet assuredness, Larsen rallied the team after that loss, telling the players to be fearless despite what seemed like so much history of which to be afraid.
Then Dunne went out and gave her teammates reason to believe, allowing six hits in 8.1 innings against Stanford in back-to-back wins the next day, giving way only to the freshman flamethrower, Jackie Traina, she helped mentor to succeed her next season. Two games in Oklahoma City later, Dunne is still rolling, looking like the best ace in the field.
"Kelsi and Whitney, this is the third time here, and I know they felt bad before, leaving here without a trophy," Murphy said. "But I think the entire season, if you don't get some adversity, in the end, you're not going to be able to do it. Because when you get here, it's the best teams in the country, and they're going to fight and claw and put everything on the line."
There is still much to be done if Dunne and the Crimson Tide want to permanently erase all that came before and become the first team from the SEC to win a national championship.
"When you make it this far, you don't want to just say I made it to the World Series," Larsen said. "You want to come out saying 'We won the World Series.' So every loss has just been heartbreaking. We've gone out in a tough fashion every year. And you think back. At the same time, none of those trips are fueling us. We've moved on past that.
"Kelsi and I, we've taken those experiences and learned to push us but not hold us back. Of course, you think about those things. But right now, we're in the winners' bracket."
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.