One strike. One single pitch. That’s all that separated the McLean Little League Majors softball all-stars from elimination in Tuesday’s state championship game.
With rising pressure sucking the air out of a beautiful summer afternoon, Bailey Johnson stared doom in the face and took a swing. The count was two balls, two strikes in the sixth inning, her team trailing 2-1. Johnson’s bat needed to make contact if McLean had any hope of staving off the ultimate defeat on its home field.
“I was very confident that she would come through,” McLean coach Gerry Megas said. “She comes from a family of champions. They’ve got something in their genes.”
Johnson vindicated her coach’s faith, sending the ball bouncing toward the right field gap. Richmond County’s second baseman was in position to field it, but she fumbled the scoop to let Caitlin Jorae and Riley Simon race home for the tying and go-ahead runs.
Amanda Moore stepped up to line another single, followed by a single from Sarah Short that extended McLean’s lead to 4-2. Facing failure just a few minutes ago, the McLean girls now found themselves on the brink of defending their state title.
But they weren’t in the clear just yet. Richmond County’s leadoff hitter smacked a triple to get the boisterous visiting contingent back on its feet. Moore then returned to the circle for McLean and proceeded to retire the next three batters, her final strikeout sending teammates scampering out of the dugout to celebrate an unlikely escape.
“I knew that even if we were down we could get back up because we’re strong enough,” McLean catcher Gracen Goven said. “We have the enthusiasm, and we all put a lot of work into it. I knew that if we worked hard enough we could do it.”
Tuesday’s nerve-fraying display wasn’t anything new to Goven, one of six returning players from last year’s McLean squad that advanced all the way to the World Series championship game in Portland, Oregon. McLean endured many battles during that run, none more contentious than their 6-5 comeback victory against the Broadway All-Stars in the state championship. That win gave the girls enough momentum to outscore their five regional opponents by a combined 39-3.
“It’s not a position that many of them haven’t been in before during the regular season. They come through little league and play here all season long,” McLean manager Rob Haas said. “They’ve been here. They’ve played this game a lot. There’s a lot of confidence. There isn’t a fear that, ‘I’m going to fail.’”
One player who hadn’t been on this stage before was Moore, McLean’s most trusty pitcher this season. Clearly unnerved by all the commotion coming from the opponent’s dugout, Moore advanced her first batter to third on a wild pitch and walked her second batter. Richmond County, another team with six returning players, was hungry to avenge last year’s 4-2 loss to McLean in pool play and represent Virginia at the Southeast Regional tournament down in Georgia next week.
But Moore settled down after the slow start, challenging numerous hitters with her pace and eventually closing with a pair of strikeouts.
“The first inning it kind of got to me that they were that loud,” Moore said. “I was getting nervous and it kind of got to my head. But after the first inning I kind of got used to it and blocked them out.”
A change in Little League rules this year boded well for the Richmond County All-Stars entering Tuesday’s contest. Pitchers are now allowed to go a full six innings and still pitch the next day, allowing teams to ride a hot pitcher all the way. Richmond County boasted a powerful left-hander who throws between 55 and 58 miles per hour, and they weren’t shy about letting her hog the circle against McLean. After putting up 48 runs in their previous four outings, McLean managed only one before Johnson’s heroics in the final inning Tuesday.
“The thing that made this tougher was they had a lights-out pitcher,” Megas said. “We needed our top hitters. They had to come through. We were very fortunate we could get our subs in in the fifth inning. Basically we knew that the sixth inning would win or lose that game for us.”
McLean’s crew heads to Warner Robbins, Georgia on Tuesday to represent Virginia in the Southeast Regional. They open pool play with an 11 a.m. matchup against the Irmo Little League All-Stars from South Carolina on Thursday.