VERO BEACH, Fla. -- When the gates opened at Jackie Robinson Training Complex on Sunday, welcoming six softball teams from around the country, the conventional wisdom was that either Atlanta Braves RBI or Houston Astros Foundation RBI would be the last club standing.
Conventional wisdom won out over four days. The undefeated Braves were set to square off against the Astros on Friday morning in the 2021 RBI World Series championship game.
In their first encounter Tuesday, Atlanta played almost flawlessly, turning defensive gems and putting pressure on Houston -- winners of two straight titles -- with the bat.
The Braves (6-0) built an 8-1 lead and withstood a seventh-inning rally for an 8-4 win, sending a message heading into the week’s remainder. They completed their perfect week with a 16-0 win in four innings over Cincinnati in Thursday’s elimination round.
Houston (5-1) did its part in an 8-0 victory over Harrisburg, who kept the game close with an incredible display of glove work.
On Friday, Braves coach Britt Finley will turn to his ace -- Makayla Stephens -- to bring a trophy back to the Atlanta area. She was awarded a $10,000 scholarship -- the Jennie Finch Empowerment Award -- following Atlanta’s win.
Stephens recorded television segments on hitting with Finch, who won a national championship (2001) with the Arizona Wildcats and Olympic gold ('04) and silver ('08).
The prep standout lined balls off a batting tee -- shots to center field -- between a camera man and sound man while chatting with Finch, but her right arm will be foremost in clinching a title.
“She’s our No. 1 pitcher. She’s going to bring heat -- spinning and heat,” said Finley of Stephens, a Class of 2023 prospect. “At the end of the day and with everything on the line, I want her to have the ball.”
Kaliyah Matthews provided some power Thursday, socking a home run as Atlanta blew the game open early.
“We swung the bats, the bats were hot today,” Finley added. “We finished the drill. We’ve got to complete it tomorrow. Our goal coming in was to go perfect.”
A first baseman, Matthews is one of only two Braves who have completed high school and is playing a final game at this level -- the other is the coach’s daughter Brooke. The pair will be roommates and play at nearby Georgia Gwinnett College.
“I started today with a clear mind. I just wanted to hit the ball better than before,” said Matthews, who hit nearly 30 homers at East Coweta High School and for the Braves.
Finch watched Stephens warm up Thursday and said, “The spin that she has on the ball is really good. She can really make the ball dance.”
Serving as a youth softball ambassador for half a decade, Finch has been impressed with the strength and skill level of the players.
“The overall athleticism is so exciting to see,” Finch added of the tournament’s talent. “These girls are so strong and so beautiful at what they do, being able to use their bodies and do so many different skills. They have tenacity and grit.”
The Astros’ Lesly Gonzalez has seemingly been in the thick of everything this week, going 6-for-13 over a stretch with three doubles, a triple and five RBIs.
Gonzalez was part of an Oak Ridge High School team that was primed for a state title last season, but Covid denied the right-handed hitter a chance. She now has that in Florida as the Astros attempt to three-peat.
Gonzalez said she likes where her hitting is right now.
“I feel I’m hitting at a peak right now,” Gonzalez said. “We’re ready to play our best against them and win.”
Oklahoma Sooners signee Turiya Coleman homered for the second straight game Thursday for Houston and made a fantastic catch while banging into the fence down the third-base line.
Houston coach Megan Hays said, “I was just kind of waiting for that moment for us to start hitting the ball. We were hitting the ball, but Harrisburg was making really great plays.”
However, it was an odd play on a routine ground ball that sealed the win for the defending champs.
In a game when Harrisburg’s defense was simply spectacular at times, the Pennsylvania team’s final play consisted of a pair of throwing errors that allowed Houston catcher Jayla Flores to hit a “Little League homer.”
Flores’ grounder was thrown wide at first, allowing the backstop to truck around to third. That throw also eluded the fielder, and Flores dashed in with the game-ending run.
“It was very tiring, but I knew I had to get around those bases,” said Flores after emerging from the dugout with the Astros’ celebratory chain hanging from her neck.
Jennifer Gress, who saved Wednesday’s game against Harrisburg, tossed a complete-game, one-hit shutout. The right-hander struck out three and didn’t issue a walk over six innings.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business [with Atlanta],” Gress said.