OKLAHOMA CITY – Eighty-two times over the last four seasons, Jessie Warren has sent a home-run ball over the wall, either at Florida State’s JoAnne Graf Field or elsewhere around the country.
She’s the top home-run hitter in both FSU and Atlantic Coast Conference history, leads the country in homers among active players and is tied for ninth-most in NCAA history.
So it’s more than a little ironic that if Warren and her FSU teammates claim the school’s first national championship – which they can do either Tuesday or Wednesday thanks to a 1-0 win over Washington in Game 1 of the Women’s College World Series Final – that the defining image of Warren’s time with the Seminoles might not be of a home run.
In fact, it might not be Warren with a bat in her hands at all.
Because the play that Warren made here in the bottom of the seventh inning at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, given the stage and the moment and the perish-the-thought implications of what might have happened had she not made it, may just overshadow everything else she’s done in her illustrious career.
And that’s no small feat.
With the Seminoles nursing a one-run lead in the final frame, Washington got a shot in the arm when Taryn Atlee reached base with a leadoff single and brought the would-be winning run to the plate with no outs.
From her spot at third base, with the capacity crowd bearing down and the Huskies looking suddenly dangerous, Warren prepared for the next play by trying to determine what the Seminoles would do if the roles were reversed.
The answer was clear:
“I would say that we’d bunt to get (the runner) to second,” Warren said. “I had a feeling they were going to try to lay it down, especially with a ‘slapper’ up to bat.”
Turns out she was right.
But just because she knew what was coming doesn’t mean it was easy to defend.
UW’s Trysten Melhart leveled her bat and made contact and the ball lifted up straight in front of home plate, headed for a no-man’s land between FSU pitcher Meghan King and catcher Anna Shelnutt.
It’s not hard for the mind to wander about how things could have played out if that ball had hit the ground: Washington with two runners on-base, perhaps even on the corners, with no outs and a prime opportunity to steal the game.
Warren, however, had other plans:
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) June 5, 2018
With a dive, a catch and a throw that took place in the span of about three seconds, the bases were emptied and the Huskies down to their final out.
Never mind that they added one other base hit – just a few moments later King coaxed a groundout and the Seminoles had the biggest win in modern program history.
As the tweet above says, perhaps there really are no words for the play.
But that didn’t stop Warren’s coach and teammates – or even the opposing coach – from trying to find some after the game.
“That’s Jessie,” coach Lonni Alameda said.
“I was so hyped from that,” freshman second baseman Sydney Sherrill added. “Man, it was good.”
Then there’s Shelnutt, who insisted that she wasn’t as stunned as the rest of us: “My first instinct when she hit the ball, I saw it had like three feet under it and I was like, ‘Jessie’s got that.’
“She’s a freakin’ animal, and she makes those plays all the time.”
Thing is, Shelnutt was right. Not even two weeks ago, in Game 3 of the NCAA Super Regional against LSU, Warren made a nearly identical diving grab on an early sacrifice bunt attempt.
The stakes weren’t quite as high (although, given it was an elimination game, there was still plenty of pressure), but the outcome was the same: A highlight-reel catch, an easy throw to double off the runner and a huge momentum swing for Warren and the Seminoles.
No wonder, then, that after answering a question about Warren’s heroics, Shelnutt smiled, looked over at Warren seated to her left at the postgame press conference podium and said, “I had complete faith in you, dog.”
Warren over the last four years has blown past the “greatest FSU softball player” conversation (only a few could make a reasonable argument) and moved right into the discussion of greatest FSU athletes across any sport.
It’s an elite space, one occupied by the likes of Ward and Posey, among others.
And like Charlie Ward on a championship-winning drive or Buster Posey with the Omaha-cinching swing, Warren delivered her biggest play in the biggest of moments.
It wasn’t just the athletic prowess, which – go take another look at that replay – was exceptional. It was the context. How much it mattered. How much her team had to have it.
How much it crushed the opponent.
“What a great play,” Washington coach Heather Tarr said. “It didn’t work out for us, but it was a great play.”
It didn’t take long for the rest of the nation to take notice.
Florida State and college softball fans alike tweeted their reactions, usually with the #SCTop10 hashtag that appealed to Sportscenter, ESPN’s flagship highlights show, to include Warren in its nightly countdown of the day’s best.
By midnight, Warren had appeared in more than 15,000 tweets across the country, earning her a spot in the social media service’s coveted “Trending” tab.
Sportscenter got on board, too, placing Warren’s grab at No. 1 on its countdown. That, in turn, caught the attention of a man who is no stranger to big plays:
Wow 🙌🏾 https://t.co/r29Jqv18qo
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) June 5, 2018
For future Basketball Hall-of-Famers, it was a “Wow” moment.
For those who share a dugout with Warren, well, they’re still wowed, too.
It’s just that they’re a little more used to it.
“This is weird to say, but that’s Jessie,” Alameda said. “She makes those plays all the time. She loves playing the game, so we’ve seen her do that a bunch of times.
“It was, you know, ‘Big-time players make big-time plays in big moments.’”