Commentary

To walk or not to walk: That is the WCWS question

Originally Published: May 30, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Proving intent may be a key element of prosecuting a case in the legal system, but an abundance of it is leaving some coaches twisting in front of a second-guessing judge, jury and executioner at the Women's College World Series.

[+] EnlargeKatie Burkhart
AP PhotoKatie Burkhart's and Arizona State's gamble in walking Brittany Rogers paid off.

On Thursday night, Alabama intentionally walked Arizona State's Kaitlin Cochran three times in a 3-1 loss. That litany of walks included a free pass when Cochran led off the top of the seventh with her team trailing the Crimson Tide 1-0.

A night later, UCLA intentionally walked Cochran three more times, including when Cochran came to the plate to lead off the bottom of the first inning. The Sun Devils stranded three runners without scoring that inning but pushed across a pair of runs in each of the two subsequent innings in which Cochran walked en route to a 4-0 win.

All of that on the heels of Northwestern repeatedly putting Cochran on base after she hit a key home run early in the opening game of the Tempe Super Regional.

Alabama's Pat Murphy, UCLA's Kelly Inouye-Perez and Northwestern's Kate Drohan are three of the brightest coaching minds in softball. All come from different backgrounds and employ different philosophies and styles. And long before the walk-fest of the last two weeks, each young coach also showed a willingness to be bound less by any unwritten rules of a bygone era than by their own instincts, experience and research.

So with critics, some of whom are certainly softball savvy and others who don't know the game is played outside of this week in Oklahoma City, calling for their heads, what's the explanation from a coach who knows Cochran as well as anyone in the country?

"You learn things early on and you have a plan," Inouye-Perez said. "You have a plan in the preseason, you have a plan in the first round of the Pac-10, in the second round, and you figure some things out. It's not necessarily all about Cochran. It's more that I have so much confidence in [Anjelica Selden] to be able to go head-to-head with every other batter."

But as the endless and largely specious debate rages over whether a strategy that backfires is necessarily a bad strategy, there are other elements in play. Namely, what impact could all of this have on the games still to come?

Although she sounded frustrated after the Alabama game, Cochran reiterated after the UCLA game that she has complete confidence in her teammates to make teams pay for putting her on base.

"To me, it is not all that frustrating at all because, like coach [Clint Myers] said, there is a new girl every day," Cochran said.

Louisiana-Lafayette's Holly Tankersley knows the feeling. The NCAA's leading home run hitter this season, Tankersley has drawn her share of intentional free passes. In one three-game series against North Texas during the regular season, she drew seven intentional walks. And in two games against LSU in the Baton Rouge Regional, she walked four times against a team eager to pitch around her.

"Sometimes it's kind of aggravating," Tankersley said. "It's hard to explain. But in all, it's respect from the other people and that means a lot to me."

Florida elected to pitch to Tankersley on Thursday and paid the price when she drove a ball over the fence -- a pitch that didn't even look like it would have been a strike -- for what proved to be the winning run.

The Sun Devils have been the beneficiary of the walks thus far, scoring all of their runs so far in the World Series in innings in which Cochran was walked intentionally. But could a run of almost four consecutive postseason games without seeing a pitch to hit take a toll when and if future opponents do go after her?

For Tankersley, there was a readjustment period when she found pitchers who were suddenly willing to throw her pitches again.

As she explained, "Mentally I wasn't prepared for that, so I had to go back and be like, 'OK, I need to approach this as if I'm being pitched to every time.' I just can't forget what I know how to do."

Inouye-Perez stressed on more than one occasion after the game that she felt her strategy had more to do with her faith in Selden's ability to get other hitters out -- something she might have done enough times to win if not for a second consecutive rough night for UCLA's defense behind her. But whether it's Selden, Alabama's Kelsi Dunne or someone still to come, will pitchers used to dictating the terms of game flow suffer lingering effects from having to back down from a challenge?

Katie Burkhart, Cochran's teammate, got the order when Alabama's Brittany Rogers came to plate with two outs and runners on second and third in the second inning of Thursday's game. Burkhart intentionally walked Rogers and then struck out Jordan Praytor to escape the bases-loaded jam partly of her own creation.

"You have to be smart, regardless," Burkhart said. "I mean, if there is somebody batting .500 and the girl under her is batting .300 and the situation arises -- I mean, yesterday that situation arose and [Alabama's] Brittany Rogers was up. … You always want the challenge as a pitcher. I was kind of like, 'Oh, OK.' We haven't done that very much, and I know he believes in me no matter what. There's not very many times where we'll walk a batter, unless the situation arises."

For Burkhart and Arizona State, intentionally walking Rogers worked out. For Stacey Nelson and Florida, not intentionally walking Tankersley didn't work out. And for Alabama and UCLA, intentionally walking Cochran immersed them in controversy.

So far in Oklahoma City, it seems that it's not so much the ends justifying the means as the ends not validating the means.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. 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.

ALSO SEE