Wind crept around the Westpark Apartments and rounded for home just after noon March 29. It was a dazzling morning, the sun-glazed sky absent clouds, but warmth escaped the Vidas Athletic Complex as the Drexel University softball team took on Elon University in the third of three weekend games.
Sophomore pitcher Taylor Lee took the mound for the Sunday afternoon capstone. The day before, the Dragons had fallen twice in a doubleheader, including a mercy rule invocation in the second game. Lee had gone all seven innings in the first game of the doubleheader, a 6-4 loss.
Lee’s mother, Tyra, sat in the top row of the bleachers situated on the right side of the infield. She wore an aquamarine windbreaker and jeans, sheltering herself from the chilling wind with the rest of the onlookers.
Tyra made the trip up from Fredricksburg, Virginia, to watch her daughter play. Lee is the team’s workhorse; by the end of the weekend, she had pitched 88 innings, 59 more than any other pitcher on the team.
As the game stretched its legs in the first few innings, the mothers at the top of the bleachers talked shop. Softball moms know their stuff. They discussed which pitches Lee had at her disposal — “She’s got a good fastball, in the 60s,” Tyra explained, “but they don’t; she doesn’t throw speed up here” — and compared the tendencies of southern hitters versus northern hitters.
Southern hitters, they said, like to swing at the first pitch. Northern hitters are more prone to let it go by, settling into the at-bat. Lee made good use of this knowledge: She was ready for Elon, a southern team, to attack her first pitches.
That southern hitting tendency is something Lee learned about during her time with Rita Lynn Gilman, the softball pitching guru who works with young pitchers before shipping her finest products off to colleges all over the country. Elon’s starting pitcher, Kiandra Mitchum, was a Rita Lynn product as well.
After surrendering a run in the top of the second that tied the game at 1-1, Lee made short work of the third and fourth innings, facing just seven batters. She struck out two while giving up a single hit, which went for naught.
When Lee recorded an out, the infielders converged on the pitching mound and she would dole out high-fives, moving from left to right. Then she would stay staring at the back fence, bring her shoulders up, breathe out and let them fall, and turn with a whip of her ponytail to face the next batter.
Lee was locked in. Through the first four innings, she allowed three hits and three strikeouts.
“It’s the unearned runs,” Tyra said, after a throwing error in the top of the fourth brought an Elon base runner to third. “That’s what gets us.”
Elon picked up a second run in the top of the fifth inning with a trio of hits, but the Dragons took the lead in the bottom of the inning, making light of a pair of Elon errors to score two runs and take a 3-2 lead. Lee had a lead and the ball in her hand heading into the top of the sixth when her mother couldn’t take the pressure anymore.
“I have to go,” Tyra declared, standing up and striding away from the field. She had to go walk out her nerves, a family friend explained. She was too worried about Taylor, the team’s workhorse, who found herself in a promising but tight spot. There was little room for error.
Lee mowed down the side in the top of the sixth — three up, three down — but the Dragons left two runners stranded in the bottom half of the inning. The gap remained the same. One run.
The wind had picked up considerably now, and younger brothers and sisters huddled under blankets in the bleachers while parents stood up and stretched their legs, eager to prevent numbness from setting in. They would have longer to wait for the end than they realized.
Trya proved to be omniscient, as an error cost the Dragons in the top of the seventh. The Phoenix scored on a dropped chance in the outfield, and all of a sudden the score was knotted at 3-3. Lee looked calm as ever on the mound, getting a fly-out to end the inning. Her mother was nowhere to be seen, stalking the grounds of the athletic complex.
After a fruitless bottom of the seventh that saw Drexel strand two more runners and a pair of empty frames in the eighth inning, Lee took the mound in the top of the ninth. Interim head coach Carl Taylor was disinterested in making a move. He believed Lee was his best chance to escape with a win, despite her entering her 16th inning of the weekend.
Yet Lee wasn’t the problem. Once again, Tyra played the role of soothsayer.
Lee conjured two quick outs from the Phoenix. But an overthrow on what would’ve been the third out of the inning led to an Elon runner on second base. That runner eventually came home, as did the one who drove the first runner in. And a two-run home run followed those two runs, putting a stamp on an inning that never should’ve lasted so long.
As the home run ball flew over the fence, Tyra was stationed at the fence in right field. She watched the ball sail over the fence and went for another walk around the grounds.
When the final Drexel pop-up was caught in the bottom of the ninth, she was heading towards the flagpole 50 yards behind the fence. The wind blew hard again and her windbreaker’s hood sheltered her from the gust. Her daughter had done everything she could. But the ball flies a little different in these northern winds.