- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Hold an ordinary ruler and imagine a season and careers continuing or ending based on one ball falling that distance short of a glove and another ball falling that far beyond an outstretched glove.
Thanks to a virtuoso pitching performance from the "other" pitcher and a pair of distinctly different home runs off arguably the best pitcher in the history of college softball -- both of which fell tantalizingly close to Texas gloves -- UCLA is moving on to play for a spot in the national title series after beating the Longhorns 2-0 under the lights on Saturday night.
And Cat Osterman, three-time national player of the year and the NCAA's all-time leader in strikeouts, is leaving Texas without the national championship that she seemed destined to win when she arrived on the scene in Austin.
Top-seeded UCLA and third-seeded Texas weren't supposed to meet this early in the Women's College World Series, squaring off in an elimination game on the day the bracket was narrowed to four teams. And as the crowd of 7,436 (a tournament record for a non-title game) filed in to Don E. Porter Hall of Fame Stadium on a clear and comfortable night, the buzz definitely provided the atmosphere of a championship showdown.
The crowd, leaning heavily toward Texas, stood two deep around the concourse at the top of the grandstand and the outfield fence. But the noise that reverberated throughout the ballpark between the end of Tennessee's extra-inning win against Arizona State and the first pitch of the nightcap quickly faded to a nervous hum as the second game began. With UCLA facing Osterman, and the Longhorns still struggling to produce runs, there seemed to be a sense that that first run might decide matters, leaving the crowd hanging on each pitch.
But even before the run crossed the plate, UCLA pitcher Anjelica Selden offered clues that the Bruins might be in good shape. Although UCLA coach Sue Enquist praised Selden after the sophomore pitched a complete game against Alabama earlier in the day (the Bruins won 4-1 to eliminate the Crimson Tide), the pitcher hadn't looked dominant in either of her starts in Oklahoma City.
"In the beginning of the tournament, I was kind of still on a roller coaster. I wasn't consistent," Selden said. "And I think the thing that helped me was knowing that I wasn't and being able to remain poised. My main thing is that if I stay composed, I'll be fine. You can' t panic in any situation. Today I felt like I managed my failures better than I did in previous games, in that if I pitched a ball, I wouldn't dwell on it. I'd just move on to the next pitch."
Against the Longhorns, Selden fanned four of the first seven batters she faced. But it was on the one hit she allowed in the first two innings, a bunt single to Chez Sievers in the bottom of the first, that Selden really turned heads. Fielding the ball herself instead of yielding to a charging infielder, Selden turned and fired a strong overhand throw to first base that narrowly trailed the runner.
Selden, who committed nine errors and posted a .750 fielding percentage leading up to the College World Series, has a history of trouble making throws to first base, often resorting to underhanded lobs. But in seizing control and firing a strong strike to first base, no matter the result of the play, she offered a clear indication that the pitcher who at times didn't seem quite herself this season was ready to match Osterman inning for inning.
"I just can't say enough about our pitcher today," Enquist said. "Jelly did such a terrific job of remaining emotionally disciplined, and by that I mean, it's an old adage, but to play pitch by pitch and stay within herself."
With Selden rolling, a pitcher's duel seemed likely. And perhaps that thought was lodged somewhere in Amber Hall's subconscious as the Texas right fielder charged in on a line drive by Andrea Duran with two outs in the top of the third inning. Diving for the ball instead of pulling up to concede the single, Hall came up inches short of at least blocking the ball, which scooted past her and rolled to the fence.
"I guess I've always been a player who likes to dive every chance she gets," Hall said. "I thought I had a chance at it, so I just put it on the line right there. Of course, I questioned it a little bit after I did it, whether I should have done it or not."
Sievers sprinted to the wall and made a strong relay to shortstop Desiree Williams who fired home as Enquist, arms waving and feet leaving the ground, sent Duran to the plate. Ball and player arrived almost simultaneously, but Willis was unable to hold on for the tag and Duran had an inside-the-park home run and a 1-0 lead against Osterman.
"I honestly don't have a clue, that stuff happened so fast," Willis said. "I just knew she was coming home, I knew the ball was coming in. She was going around me, so I just got it and dove for her. Luck wasn't on our side, the ball came out of my glove and she was safe."
While the run turned out to be enough with the way Selden was pitching, Emily Zaplatosch offered the blow that perhaps broke Texas' back for good in the fourth inning. On a 1-0 pitch that almost appeared to jam her, she launched the ball over the wall in left field, just past the outstretched gloves of Shannon Thomas and Tina Boutelle. Adding a single and a double, Zaplatosch became the first player this season to total three hits in a game against Osterman.
With the small contingent of UCLA fans behind the team's first-base dugout now the dominant voice in the stadium, the Bruins settled in and Selden continued to baffle Texas hitters. From the end of the fourth inning through the beginning of the sixth, Selden fanned five consecutive hitters. She closed the game by retiring 13 of the last 14 batters she faced.
Fittingly, Osterman closed her final college game by striking out two UCLA hitters to end the top of the seventh. Sadly, the Longhorns managing just a bunt single in the bottom of the seventh also proved an apt summation of Osterman's career. A team with heart and passion in abundance, the Longhorns often looked like they had more fun on and off the diamond than anyone else in the country. They didn't, however, have the offense to win a national title. Against Selden, Texas had just three hits and never advanced a runner as far as second base.
The atmosphere might have suggested otherwise, but the win only moves the Bruins a small step closer to erasing the mistakes of an opening loss against Tennessee. The Bruins must now win two games against Northwestern on Sunday to earn a place in the best-of-three title series that begins on Monday night.
And while many will pencil in UCLA for the final, two factors are worth considering. First, Northwestern isn't likely to be intimidated by UCLA, having beaten the Bruins in Los Angeles earlier this season. In that 3-2 win, Eileen Canney limited the Bruins to three hits, although Caitlin Benyi and Jodie Legaspi made two of those hits count with solo home runs.
A pitcher with a diverse array of pitches who prides herself on moving the ball around and out of the zone, Canney presents a significant challenge.
"It's going to be critical for us to be able to be disciplined at the plate, knowing that if we're going out of the zone with the swings, it's going to be a long ball game," Enquist said.
The second problem for UCLA is potentially needing Selden to pitch two more games on Sunday, unless Enquist reverses course and gives the ball to Lisa Dodd at some point.
Then again, given the way things went against Texas, a tired Selden at her best might just do the trick.
"Texas has great fans," Enquist said. "But all those people, they're not going to help you hit Jelly Selden's flip-drop. And you saw today that that was something pretty tough to hit."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
UCLA is moving on to play for a spot in the national title series after beating the Longhorns 2-0 in Oklahoma City under the lights on Saturday night.