Washington finds success bucking pitch-calling trend
OKLAHOMA CITY -- If a softball field is landscape art at is finest -- the crisscrossing tracks of the mower adding a geometric complexity to the large swaths of green grass, brown dirt and blue skies -- then the strike zone is pure abstract expressionism.
In Danielle Lawrie's case, it was dots of electric pink on her fingernails unleashing streaks of bright yellow as the ball traced seemingly arbitrary patterns through thin air as Washington's ace threw the 16th no-hitter in Women's College World Series history to lead the Huskies to a 3-1 win against DePaul in the opening game from Oklahoma City.
"It was just a great feeling," Lawrie said of her first no-hitter this season. "There's not much more I can really say, other than thanks to Alicia [Matthews] for helping me out, calling a great game. Without her out there, being consistent and keeping teams off balance, I'm nowhere."
For many pitchers, perhaps even a majority of Division I pitchers, that sentiment would be a nice bit of gratitude expressed for the work of the pitching coach, surveying the game from the top step of the dugout and relaying signs for each pitch to the catcher behind the plate. But Eve Gaw is Washington's pitching coach; Matthews is Lawrie's catcher.
Just as play calling has been taken away from quarterbacks in college football and handed to coaches looking for more complete control, pitch calling in college softball has increasingly become the exclusive domain of coaches. But despite the fact that both members of Washington's battery are mere sophomores, coach Heather Tarr and Gaw have fully entrusted the in-game management of pitch calling to the players on the field.
"I want my players to learn the game, and they learn it by doing," Tarr said. "I know there are some great coaches out there that have the capability to maybe teach the game through them calling the game for them. But I believe a pitcher, when she's convicted about throwing a pitch, she's going to execute that pitch to the best of her ability. I think when they make the call, and they say 'This is what I'm going to throw,' then most of the time it works out in a good way."
Unlike the tangible heft of a base or the chalk outline of the foul line, the strike zone establishes the parameters of a game without physical confirmation of its existence. In theory, it is whatever the umpire says it is, but in practice it is a pitcher's canvas. And Lawrie put together a masterpiece on Thursday, consistently catching the outside corners of the strike zone for called strikes, getting ahead in the count and forcing DePaul hitters to futilely chase pitches that then danced and dove out of the zone.
After a win in regionals, Lawrie talked about relying on whatever pitch was working best on a particular day as an out pitch instead of forcing the issue with a single favored pitch. But against the Blue Demons, she didn't need to choose; every pitch was working.
Determining which pitch is right for a particular situation is up to Matthews. Tarr and the coaches may occasionally send instructions or advice, and Lawrie certainly shakes off pitches from time to time, but it's usually up to the sophomore backstop to take stock of the evolving flow of the game and her partner's stuff on a given day.
"Just getting past that first inning is really important and to see what's working for her and how she's feeling. Inning by inning it varies," Matthews said. "Sometimes maybe her curve ball isn't working as well from one inning to the next, so making sure that she makes those adjustments then I can get an idea of what I need to call for her."
For Matthews, calling a game isn't so much something she's grown into or learned how to do; it's just a part of being a catcher. She was surprised to discover it was even a topic of discussion when she arrived at Washington as part of Tarr's first recruiting class.
"I guess I didn't really realize that in college coaches did call the pitches," Matthews admitted. "I didn't realize that. So coming in, I think I already had the mind-set that I would call, until I heard that in the past they haven't. So it was really exciting that I was able to call them, because I've done that and I've been successful at it growing up. I trust my instincts, and I feel good when I can call the game."
Part of that job entails knowing the strength of opposing batters, whether it's scouting trends before the game or studying past at-bats as a game goes on. And part of it involves adjusting to the strike zone of a particular umpire. Against DePaul, Lawrie and Matthews made quick work of any number of DePaul's right-handed hitters by exploiting a favorable outside zone. But more than anything, especially with a pitcher like Lawrie, it's about knowing your own assets better than anyone else on the field.
"I think it's more of a matter of Danielle attacking the batter," Tarr said. "I don't think it was the zone or trying to feel the zone necessarily -- sometimes that happens, but I think it was more of, 'OK, I trust my best stuff against their best stuff, and I'm going to throw strikes.'"
Or as Matthews explained it, "Our coach lets us know what their strong points are and what their weak points are. But I don't like to get too wrapped up in that, because Dannie is a completely different pitcher than probably any other pitcher that they've faced."
That was certainly true on Thursday as Lawrie and Matthews teamed up to open the Women's College World Series in historic fashion.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.