New Zealand 5
New Zealand knew they would have to come up with something special if they were to beat tournament favourites Australia in the playoffs of the World Softball Championships.
And the Black Sox produced exactly that at Rosedale Park in Albany tonight, coming from a run down in the 10th inning to win 5-4 and give themselves a golden opportunity of clinching a sixth world title.
The scores were level after the regulation seven innings and, once Australia edged in front in the top of the 10th, Brad Rona came up with the clutch two-out RBI double to tie the game before Ben Enoka ended the marathon match with a single up the middle.
"They are just big games to play in,'' coach Eddie Kohlhase said. "It's the equivalent of an All Blacks-Wallabies games, they're just big games with the transtasman rivalry.
"There's a lot of fierce rivalry among both teams. We know each other pretty well and there's a little bit of hurt from 2009.''
The win, which guarantees a medal for New Zealand, exacted an element of revenge from that loss in the final of the last world champs. It also left Australia requiring two wins tomorrow to qualify for the medal round, something Kohlhase was expecting.
"They're not going to give away their crown easily. They're a tough team to play.''
As for his own team, the Black Sox will tomorrow play the winner of tonight's match between Canada and Venezuela for a spot in the gold medal game. The loser of tomorrow's encounter will at worse finish with the bronze but could still qualify for the tournament showpiece.
There was plenty of support for the home side tonight but a Kiwi win seemed unlikely when running an eye over the respective form of the two teams. Australia ended pool play as the only unbeaten side, winning all seven games with a run differential of 43, while the Black Sox lost once and struggled at times with pitching.
Pitching was no problem today, though, with Jeremy Manley tossing three scoreless innings in relief of Heinie Shannon and Nik Hayes stamping out an Australian threat in the seventh before throwing three no-hit frames in the tie-break.
Kohlhase was especially impressed with the performance of Hayes, who kept his side in the game with some quality under-pressure pitching.
"I'm really happy for the young man,'' he said. "He can take a lot from tonight's performance. I thought it was world class. Against the defending world champs, with a big crowd in a trying time, you can't get any better than that.''
New Zealand found themselves behind 2-0 early in the contest, before the offence was kick-started by a two-run homer from Rona in the fourth. Nathan Nukunuku then hit the go-ahead single in the fifth to score captain Rhys Casely, a run looked set to decide the game after both teams' bats went quiet.
But Australia sparked to life in the seventh to tie it off Hayes after Manley had put two men on, sending the game to extra innings and setting up the drama that was to follow.
The Black Sox squandered the first real chance of the additional frames, unable to score after loading the bases with no outs in the eighth, before Rona and Enoka combined to end the epic encounter.