Arizona ace goes the distance to keep Wildcats' repeat title hopes alive

Originally Published: June 6, 2007
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Imperfection has never been quite so impressive.

Danielle Rodriguez
Chris WIlliams/Icon SMIDanielle Rodriguez's controversial play at the plate sealed the win for Arizona.
In a battle between a pitcher who has spent the last five days making her case with every scoreless inning as the best in the game's history and a pitcher who spent those same days making a case for workers' comp, Arizona's merely mortal Taryne Mowatt worked out of a seemingly endless string of jams and outlasted Monica Abbott and Tennessee in a 1-0 10-inning thriller. As her reward, Mowatt gets another turn in the circle as the Wildcats and Lady Vols meet in a decisive third game on Wednesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).

Even if the winning run scored in controversial fashion, with pinch runner Danielle Rodriguez catching the edge of the plate with the tip of her self-professed long fingers -- or not catching it, depending on your point of view and wardrobe colors -- as Tennessee catcher Shannon Doepking tried to apply a tag in the top of the 10th inning, there was no debating Mowatt's indefatigable excellence.

She is an All-American in her own right, but there is more to her than accolades and numbers can ever tell.

Abbott is someone to marvel at from a distance, like a work of art in a museum. You know she is doing things unseen before which is mesmerizing in its own right, but it is also foreign to all but that scant percentile of the population born with unusual physical gifts. Abbott seems at times superhuman, or at least super-softball, but there is a reason a century's worth of fictional superheroes have been written with dual lives.

We are enthralled by Superman and what we can never hope to do, but we ultimately need the more identifiable Clark Kent to relate to. And in Mowatt, we get to watch the best of both worlds, the mild-mannered Californian with the winning grin who emerges from a thicket of taller teammates each half inning and does the seemingly impossible in the circle.

Expected to split time this season with a freshman prodigy as the Wildcats sought to replace departed ace Alicia Hollowell, Mowatt instead seized not only a role as this team's ace but a place among the program's lineage of great pitchers. She has even impressed a coach who is difficult to impress, even if he couldn't avoid an unintentional pun at the expense of her average frame and corresponding cleat size.

"I'm so proud of her," Mike Candrea said. "She walked in here trying to fill some big shoes, and early on, I don't think people gave her the credit that she deserved. And she had to find some comfort in who she was and find some confidence. And once she found the confidence, she's a competitor, she's a battler. And it's been pretty special to watch her. This College World Series, I think she's made believers out of a lot of people."

Count the Lady Vols among the believers after Mowatt simply refused to give in to what felt like the mounting tide of a title for Rocky Top on Tuesday night. With Pat Summitt and Phil Fulmer in the stands, the Lady Vols stranded runners in nine innings, including a bases-loaded jam with no outs in the bottom of the fifth inning.

But after Mowatt threw home for a force out for the first out of the fifth, she calmly forced Tiffany Huff and Tonya Callahan into popups and got some help when second baseman Chelsie Mesa and shortstop Kristie Fox both made over-the-shoulder catches on the outfield grass.

"I just kind of had to stay calm and not get too worked up about it," Mowatt said. "I knew that there were no outs, based loaded and probably their three best hitters up to bat. But I hit my spots -- I thought I jammed the last two batters pretty good -- and Chelsie and Foxie got really good jumps on those balls behind them and were able to catch them. So it was an exciting inning."

Mowatt had thrown 180 pitches by the time Mesa stepped on second for the play to end the game, running her total to 888 pitches in seven games over the last six days. Of course, in an age of high-tech training techniques, she has a rather old-fashioned cure for any weariness.

Taryne Mowatt
AP PhotoTaryne Mowatt could hit the 1,000-pitch mark during Wednesday's championship game.
"I'm pretty mentally tough, I think," Mowatt said after winning two games on Sunday to get the Wildcats to the championship series. "Physically, it takes a little bit to recover. I recover pretty fast. I mean, basically the key to my recovery is to get a good night's sleep. That's my biggest recovery point, I guess you could say."

So while much has been made of the blister on her pitching hand that she downplayed after Tuesday's win, how did the real key to her recovery go after Monday's loss?

"I slept pretty good last night," Mowatt said, laughing. "It was kind of hard to fall asleep at first, but once I was asleep, I was out."

Five hours before she stepped into the circle and threw a ball to India Chiles to lead off the bottom of the first, Mowatt was sitting at a corner table in a basement restaurant in Bricktown in downtown Oklahoma City. Surrounded by a collection of six family members and dressed in shorts and sandals instead of softball pants and cleats, she looked neither weary nor apprehensive. She looked like a college kid enjoying a reunion.

"My mom and my grandparents were here this whole tournament, and I just had three family members fly in today," Mowatt said. "I just kind of enjoy my family and the company and I relax during the day, so going out to eat with them is kind of a relaxation thing."

And that's the thing about Mowatt. It's easy to mistake her for someone normal accomplishing the momentous. But there is a confidence that lurks in her ability to detach herself from the pressure of the moment to sleep soundly and stroll through the city streets. It's the confidence that allows her to work out of jams and keep throwing changeup after changeup, even as Tennessee hitters wait and wait for that exact pitch.

"I still kept throwing it, because even if they do wait on it, they weren't successful with it," Mowatt said. "So I'll keep throwing it until they become successful."

It's the confidence that lurks behind the twinkling eyes and wide grin, gifts that rival anything we see on the surface for Abbott.

Getting another win on Wednesday to become the second team in the three-year history of the best-of-three championship series to rally from a deficit won't be easy. In Tennessee's postgame press conference, Abbott looked neither shaken nor worried after another stellar solo performance. She sounded as confident and sure of her teammates as at any time during the tournament. And she should, considering the Wildcats have scored just one run in 24 innings against her in Oklahoma City.

But after seven games in six days, what's another seven innings for Mowatt?

"My arm feels great, actually," Mowatt said. "It feels better these past two days than it did kind of in the middle of the tournament. I hit a lull in the middle, but I think as the tournament goes on, I'm getting better."

Then she added with a wry smile, "And good thing that tomorrow is the championship game."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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