Team USA pitchers have big shoes to fill
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There will be more demanding critics in time. Teams representing Australia, Canada and Japan, among others, will get their say on the matter. But during a recent softball clinic on the campus of the West Virginia University, the rapt attention and awestruck looks offered by almost 150 girls who ranged in age from elementary to high school cast what appeared a unanimous vote on the current luster of the United States national team.
Same as it ever was.
A night later, Team USA pitchers Jolene Henderson, Jessica Moore, Sara Nevins and Jaclyn Traina combined to strike out 24 batters and allow one hit and no runs in two games against a team of small-college players from the region.
Same as it ever was.
This week's World Cup of Softball, the annual summer invitational staged by USA Softball, marks the beginning of the national team's 2014 competitive schedule. Their roster shaped by tryouts in June, the Americans now face other international teams for the first time as they begin to build toward August's ISF World Championship in Holland and a potential 10th title in softball's signature event, more than twice as many as the rest of the world combined.
"I think that we are expected to win, and I think we all know we can win," Henderson said of the prize available at the end of the summer.
Same as it ever was? More than anyone else, those four pitchers will determine the answer.
Henderson spent the spring playing in Japan's professional league. One day at practice, a teammate who plays for the Japanese national team, Rei Nishiyama, called the pitcher's attention to her bat and playfully exclaimed "Beat America." As in, take a good look at the bat that helped Japan get the better of its biggest softball rival.
Bragging rights are a universal language. Japan has all of them at the moment.
Henderson and her teammates may understandably choose to believe they enter the summer as favorites based on the national team's track record and the place of prominence softball occupies among women's sports in their home country, but it is an inescapable fact of championship hardware that Team USA has no current claim to international bragging rights. Not only did Japan win the final Olympic softball competition in 2008, it also won the most recent world championship two years ago in Canada. It even holds the junior world title after it beat the United States in the final of that event a year ago.
The truth is that while the desired result remains the same as it ever was for Team USA, the process for getting there is not the same.
The team that takes the field this summer is young, a necessity in a world in which the program had to all but start from scratch after its budget was slashed when the sport was eliminated from the Olympic program. In addition to five active collegians, the roster lacks even a single player who completed her college career earlier than 2012. The pitching circle isn't spared. Where once the likes of Monica Abbott, Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and Michele Smith starred year after year, well into their mid- to late 20s and in some cases beyond, the current quartet has a total of three years of international experience, and one major tournament appearance.
"We have big shoes to fill, in a good way," Moore said. "America has always had some of the best pitchers in the world, so it's kind of like living up to that and trying to continue a tradition and carry on the legacy of us being a strong pitching country. It's just performing for our team. Whatever we need to do for us to come back with the gold is what we need to do."
Living up to those expectations proved difficult a year ago for a staff that included two of the current pitchers, Moore and Nevins. Pitching wasn't at fault for a surprising 2-1 loss to Australia that ultimately cost the United States a place in the Canadian Open final, but Japan scored 18 runs in three summer wins against its main rival. Even the wins were sometimes shaky, as in back-to-back wins against Canada in which the Canadians nonetheless managed a total of nine runs. Team USA has always scored runs. It never needed them more.
"We battled through inexperience," Team USA coach Ken Eriksen said.
To that end, the three years of international experience the pitchers now share (one each for Moore, Nevins and Traina) are three more than the pitching staff had when it took the field last summer. But befitting the era in which they play, they are still a group shaped less by accomplishment than by their desire to accomplish. Just getting here reveals something about them.
As much as any of the team's pitchers a season ago, Moore grew into her role. The former University of Oregon ace was the most productive pitcher for the United States in the Pan-Am qualifier, posting a 0.62 ERA in a team-high 22 1/3 innings in the tournament. But once a gold medal in that event brought summer to a close, she entered the working world as a first-year assistant coach at Idaho State. Instead of throwing medal-round games against Japanese professionals, she was throwing batting practice to one of Division I's newest softball programs.
Eriksen noted that it took time for most of the players who were not active collegians this past season to shake off rust when tryouts began. One notable exception was Moore. She showed up in even better shape than a year ago, when she was fresh out of Oregon. She had sharper spins on her pitches and a calmer demeanor in the circle.
It isn't easy for an athlete to maintain a world-class level of performance without a full-time training environment. Moore didn't just maintain in Pocatello, Idaho -- she enhanced.
"She has this competitive mindset about everything," Henderson said of her former Pac-12 rival. "She knows what she thinks, and she believes in something. And she says it. She plays like that also. She has something she wants to do and she knows what she wants to do."
The next time Moore smiles in the circle may be the first time. The freest of free spirits, Henderson generally can't stop smiling when she's out there. But unable to try out for the national team a year ago because she had recently undergone surgery to repair a torn ACL, an injury she pitched through for the University of California in the NCAA tournament, she, too, faced uncertainty as last summer came to a close. With every option from walking away to pitching in National Pro Fastpitch available, she felt compelled to make one more run at the national team. So the Northern California native who stayed close to home for college headed to Japan in search of an environment that both athletically and financially allowed her to stay in the game.
"She's just a very selfless person," Traina said. "She has a very passionate personality and I think she puts a lot of passion with everything she does. She gets the job done, and she's always doing it with a smile on their face."
Even Traina, who completed her college career a little more than a month ago by leading Alabama to the championship round of the Women's College World Series for the second time in three years, has paid dues beyond her years. Part of the team that beat Japan in the medal round of the world championship two years ago and pushed the same team to extra innings for the gold medal, she didn't pitch last summer after the constant workload left her mentally exhausted and physically ailing with an arm injury. Now she is back.
The pitchers complement each other, Moore's heavy drop ball a contrast to Henderson's knee-buckling changeup, a pitch that is all the more devastating if thrown to a batter who an inning or two earlier faced Traina's 70-plus mph fastball. Add in Nevins, another hard thrower and the lone lefty, and the group's potential strength is the sum of its four equal parts. None of them are used to splitting innings in games. All of them are willing.
"We have each other's backs, I know that for sure," Traina said. "Sometimes it's better to change it up, so they only see her two times and me once and then switch it up because I think we all complement each other really well and have different stuff. But it definitely is kind of weird coming in after somebody else just because we never really did it in college. We usually started. I guess the coming in part is different and you kind of have to get used to it."
Still, wouldn't the United States stand a better chance of winning if Abbott, Osterman and Keilani Ricketts were going to Holland instead of Alabama for the NPF playoffs in August?
"It's tough to say whether they would have a better chance or not," Eriksen said. "It's who is pitching well that day. Are they buying into the system? Hey, they're great pitchers in their own right, there's no doubt about that. ... A better chance? I don't know. But they would give you a chance.
"If I had to say who would I throw today against Japan, it's really tough to say because Jess Moore owns Japan."
Given the level at which Abbott and Osterman continue to perform in the professional ranks, it is a notably optimistic perspective from a man whose optimism is perhaps his defining trait. He also compared his feelings about the current pitchers to the staff he had as an assistant coach with the 2004 Olympic team: Fernandez, Finch, Osterman and Lori Harrigan.
"Are we looking at today or are we looking at two years from now, are we looking at four years from now?" Eriksen continued. "I think you've got to go with the future of the program. I think we're looking really, really good with the future of the program."
He hopes the future is 2020. While softball was not reinstated to the Olympic program last year, losing out to wrestling in an International Olympic Committee vote, there is still a school of thought that both softball and baseball could be part of the program in Tokyo, if only as one-time exhibition sports in a country where their popularity rivals what is found in the United States.
It is an opportunity, Moore admits, she thinks about every day. All four pitchers would be in their athletic primes six years from now. All of them want that opportunity.
But first they want bragging rights back.
"When I think of America, I don't necessarily think of their legacy of pitching," Henderson said. "I think of their legacy of winning. So when I think about if I have big shoes to fill, or if we necessarily do, I don't think of it as me pitching but as our team working together to get a win. Things can happen, and the games might get crazy, but we finish. We are going to win. We have the last say in the game. We change the game. That's what I think our legacy is. That's the expectation we're here to fill, not necessarily hitting or pitching or anything.
"We win. That's what America does."
Time will tell if that is indeed the same as it ever was.