Stephanie Brombacher keeps Florida alive in WCWS

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Smack in the middle of a rocky first inning by freshman Hannah Rogers against Cal, Florida coach Tim Walton scanned down the dugout for Stephanie Brombacher, the senior right-hander who probably would have been on the mound herself had her season not been wrecked by a torn biceps muscle.

Brombacher can still pitch, just without her customary movement and velocity; she started Florida's first two games of the Women's College World Series but never got through the third inning. Now the right-handed Rogers was in trouble, the Gators were one loss from elimination, and Walton had to know right now if Brombacher -- who pitched in relief only twice all season -- could help.

They did not speak. Walton looked at her with an expression that conveyed his question. "Sometimes you get a 'Hey, are you ready?' and it's kind of a token way of saying, 'How you doing?'" Walton said. "Today, she probably saw it in my eyes."

She did. "I got a feeling," said Brombacher, who did not hesitate. After making a critical throwing error in Friday night's 6-5 loss to Arizona State, Brombacher wanted back on the mound badly.

Rogers gave up two runs in the first and struggled through four innings before turning over a two-run lead to Brombacher in the fifth. Brombacher saved the 5-2 victory with three scoreless, one-hit innings, retiring her last eight batters on a steamy early evening at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium to keep Florida in the tournament for another day.

"The strike zone was a little tight, but they kept swinging the bat. They were aggressive," a smiling Brombacher said. "That helped me out."

With that, the Gators (54-11) advanced to meet SEC rival Alabama (53-9) on Sunday at noon Eastern time. Florida must beat the Crimson Tide twice to move on to the best-of-three final; Alabama needs one victory. A second game, if needed, would start at 6 p.m.

On the other side of the bracket, a determined Baylor (47-14) emerged from the losers' bracket with more walk-off dramatics to earn a 2:30 p.m. game with top-seeded Arizona (57-6). A few minutes past midnight Sunday morning, the Bears won 1-0 on a homer for the second time in the tournament, as Holly Holl connected off Chelsea Thomas in the 13th inning to eliminate Missouri. Thomas struck out 19 batters -- one short of the WCWS record -- in her second game of the day.

"I'm sleeping in my uniform," said winning pitcher Whitney Canion, who threw a two-hitter.

Baylor and Missouri finished long after Brombacher completed an outing she needed. Brombacher missed more than a month with her injury, and since her return April 16, she has not been the same pitcher who started the season 14-0 with a 0.67 ERA.

Though Walton insists Brombacher is healthy, he hasn't let her throw more than 79 pitches in any start since April 23, the day she threw 99 against Alabama and gave up five runs (four earned) over 6.1 innings in a no-decision. That was also the only time in 14 starts since coming back that she lasted more than five innings.

Managing Brombacher's psyche, rather than her physical health, proved the bigger challenge for Walton.

"That's been the toughest part of my job," Walton said. "I think her arm is fine, but her stuff isn't the same, and that's probably because of the injury. I've tried to keep her confident so she could help us in a moment like this."

Because Rogers throws harder than Brombacher, Walton prefers starting Brombacher, then summoning Rogers to blow hitters away. Rogers (35-7) has been Florida's best pitcher for two months, but Walton used her twice in relief of the more experienced Brombacher before turning to her to start Saturday with the season on the line.

But Walton had another concern beyond pitching: the rock-hard condition of the field.

Too much watering by the grounds crew before Friday's Baylor-Alabama game created a quagmire between second and third, and the game had to be held up for 10 minutes while the crew scrambled to rake and dry it up. The crew watered lightly Saturday, and infielders on both teams struggled to handle short-hops and tricky bounces. Walton needed fly balls, not grounders, to calm his nerves, and that meant Brombacher.

"Hannah was making good pitches, but the ground really didn't work well for that," Brombacher said. "Coach just wanted me to go in and spin the ball. I'm more of a pop-up pitcher, so I went in there and just kind of gave my pitches."

Brombacher did not strike out anyone -- only the second time all season that happened -- but got six of nine outs on popups.

"I don't think it was a timing issue," Cal catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt said. "Hannah threw hard and hit her corners really well, and Stephanie came in and had a really good rise ball and screwball. This game is about adjustments, and unfortunately we didn't make ours."

So what happens Sunday? Alabama, led by starter Kelsi Dunne and reliever Jackie Traina, hasn't allowed a run in its past 30 postseason innings. Bunting and manufacturing runs has been the norm in this WCWS rather than home runs, though the slugging Gators own four of the 11 hit out of the park here this week. Alabama leads the nation in stolen bases. And the Tide won two of three in an April series at Florida, both victories by one run, one in extra innings.

"It's been back and forth through the years," said Florida senior left fielder Kelsey Bruder. "Kelsi Dunne has gotten us as many times as we've gotten her. It always ends in dramatic fashion. So I'm definitely looking forward to [Sunday] and what both teams can bring."

So is Brombacher. Though Walton chose not to pitch Brombacher twice in one day when he had the chance May 22, in the Gainesville Regional against UCLA, he might Sunday.

"No question," he said. "Steph might come in in the first game and start the second, or vice versa. She could pitch 14 [innings] tomorrow if we needed her to."

Or maybe just three key ones, like on Saturday.

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