OKLAHOMA CITY – In its first year, the best-of-three championship series format at the Women's College World Series is already worth its weight in gold – and blue.
Just ask top-ranked Michigan. The Wolverines (64-7), who were down one but not out after their marathon game Monday, are making full use of the new format. The WCWS top seed dropped Game 1 to UCLA (40-19) Monday, but a 5-2 comeback victory against the Bruins in Game 2 Tuesday forced the championship series to a deciding Game 3 on Wednesday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).
With Michigan down 2-0 in the fifth inning, Grace Leutele played the role of catalyst, reiterating UM's unrelenting tenor with a leadoff single. This set the stage for catcher Becky Marx's heroics. The junior transfer from Loyola (Chicago) broke a 1-for-11 WCWS skid with a two-run shot to left to tie the score at 2-2.
Marx stepped in behind the plate this season, filling the big shoes of backstop Monica Schock, who has been out of commission since back surgery last year. In fact, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins calls Marx "a gift from God." Marx, who hits in the modest eighth spot, delivered her home run from deep in the Michigan order, offering further proof to the depth and balance of the Wolverines.
"Against a team like Michigan, you can't take anything for granted," UCLA second baseman Caitlin Benyi said. "Even six runs against a team like this is not enough." Benyi did her part, going 1-for-3 with a home run in the loss.
Marx's home run – the NCAA-leading 102nd on the year for the Wolverines – proved just the shot in the arm her teammates needed to surge back from the brink of elimination. Slumping slugger and senior co-captain Jessica Merchant broke out of an 0-for-10 skid with a two-out, two-run double to left-center off Anjelica Selden that gave Michigan a 4-2 lead.
Previously, Selden (29-13) had shut the door on Michigan's bats, leaving them scoreless through 11 consecutive innings. The Bruins freshman gave up eight hits and walked two while striking out 13 Tuesday. "There is nothing really more that I can do," Selden said. "Just be sharp with my pitches and not miss like I did."
The highly acclaimed burly bats Michigan touted all season had been relatively sluggish, if not outright slumping, in Oklahoma City. Michigan ace Jennie Ritter (37-4) never gave up on her teammates' offensive output, but the two-run lead provided by Merchant helped. "It definitely means a lot," Ritter said. "You start to believe a little bit more."
Michigan's win in Game 2 also strengthened belief in the new best-of-three format. The system gave Michigan the chance to come back and avenge an out-of-character 5-0 defeat in Game 1.
Even though the former one-and-done championship format would have yielded her third straight title, Bruins coach Sue Enquist applauds the adjustment and welcomes Wednesday's Game 3. "To be honest with you, I love the format," Enquist said. "I really do. I know that sounds crazy because we take [Monday] night's game and bid farewell. But I think this is good for the game."
Enquist is right on the mark. Imagine if the last exit on the extensive road to Oklahoma City actually had been decided by Monday night's spirited circus? What a travesty if the bow tied around the entire 2005 college softball season was decided by one game. A game in which most recaps made mention of questionable calls and controversial plays. A game whose result seemed further diminished by the fact that Michigan was running on fumes after weather delays condensed the schedule in Oklahoma City.
Michigan wouldn't want to go out that way. As important, UCLA wouldn't want to go out that way, either.
"I tip my cap to the University of Michigan," Enquist said. "We've got to feel the sting – that's important – and then pass through, clear our heads and go into Game 3 with a new sense of vigor."
Both sides are downright stoic about an elimination game whose plot, pageantry and regional partisanship could make the folks on Capitol Hill blush.
"From day one of the season, our goal has been to win Wednesday night," Merchant said. "We've put ourselves in a position to do that, but we can't make the game anything more than it is. It's just a game. We'll go out and play Michigan softball, just like we've done all year. Nothing changes Wednesday night."
"The team that gets wrapped up in the drama will fold," Enquist predicted. "Straight up, the team that gets wrapped up in the drama is going to fold."
The drama unfolds Wednesday night at 7:30 ET on ESPN.
Mary Buckheit, a former college softball player, is covering the Women's College World Series for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Mary.J.Buckheit@ESPN3.com