Chicago Bandits win back-to-back NPF championships
By Jim Jenks
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Chicago Bandits came into Game 3 of the National Pro Fastpitch Championship on Tuesday night looking for back-back titles over their rival, the USSSA Pride.
Call it coincidence or call it irony, the Bandits used back-to-back home runs in the third inning to get what they came for, a 2-1 win, a fourth Cowles Cup and a confetti celebration on the field at Rhoads Stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama.
In keeping the back-to-back theme, for the second consecutive night, Taylor Edwards hit a solo home run in the third inning to give the Bandits an early edge. Not to be outdone, Brittany Cervantes followed suit with a solo homer of her own as Chicago got all the offense it needed. For Cervantes, it was her third of the Championship to go along with a .500 batting average and six RBIs, garnering her MVP honors.
"Honestly, it was a black-out moment," Cervantes said of what would be the game-winning homer. "Swing the bat and hit the ball was all it was."
Bandits starter April Bunner, 2-0, was not dominant, but she did everything right in scattering eight hits and getting out of any trouble. The only blemish was a fifth-inning solo homer to 2016 Triple Crown winner Kelly Kretschman, who took a 1-0 pitch out to right-center field. It was Kretschman's first home run of the Championship after hitting 13 during the regular season.
Bunner was not even on the team when the season started, having missed all of last season and being waived by the Pennsylvania Rebellion. She joined the club as the Bandits were looking for help to replace their ace from last year, Monica Abbott. Abbott had been signed by the expansion Scrap Yard Dawgs for the first million-dollar contract in NPF history.
"When I got here today, I am not going to lie, I am not normally nervous, but I was extra nervous," Bunner said. "I had a group of pitchers standing behind me. The first thing they said to me was 'No matter what happens we all got your back.' So, going into the game I used that mentally that I knew that another pitcher was there behind me."
That pitcher was Shelby Turnier, who came in for the seventh and retired the Pride in order on three fly balls to the outfield. It was her second save to go along with one victory.
"Ice water in her veins," Bandits coach Mike Steuerwald said of Turnier, who is a rookie out of the University of Central Florida. "Bringing her in for that, it was almost like she was in the College World Series every year pitching in that situation."
Chicago struggled during the regular season and could never get above the .500 mark, but did manage to earn the No. 3 seed with a 23-25 record. They took the semifinal series 2-1 over the Abbott and the Dawgs.
"It's our first win streak in almost four weeks, I think," Steuerwald said, holding back his laughter. "We got back to .500 tonight, so a lot of big milestones for this group, besides just winning the championship."
It is the fourth championship for the Bandits, compared to three for the Pride and both Kretschman and Steuerwald compared the rivalry to being like Major League Baseball's Red Sox and Yankees.
Said reigning two-time NPF Player of the year, Kretschman: "I kind of relate it to the Red Sox-Yankees. We both respect each other a lot, but we hate each other at the same time. It started right away. They've been a consistently on-top team through the course of the league's existence."
"It's a mindset that maybe we play with a chip on our shoulder," Steuerwald said. "I would say that we are more the Red Sox and they are more of the Yankees. I think we bring that attitude into every game."
The Bandits and Pride had met for the title five previous times with each team winning two. The Pride won in 2010 and '13 and the Bandits in 2011 and last season. In 2012, the championship went undecided because of inclement weather and player commitments overseas.
The Pride got runners into scoring position in each of the first two innings and Bunner was able to get out of both jams, with a 5-4-3 double play in the first and pop out to second. In the fourth, with two outs after another double play, the Pride threatened again. Hallie Wilson doubled and Kirstin Merritt singled to put runners on second and third. Bunner came through again, getting Sierra Romero to ground to short.
USSSA starter Keilani Ricketts, 1-1, took the loss, giving up five hits, including the two solo homers. She struck out five in 4 2/3 innings. Jordan Taylor was perfect in relief, keeping the Pride hopes alive with 2 2/3 of no-hit ball.
"I am proud of the girls, I think they fought and stayed in it," said first-year Pride coach Lonni Alameda. "It sucks to lose … sucks to lose, but I am so proud we were in that moment and that we battled and fought."
Jim Jenks is an executive producer with MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.