- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Thanks to a less physiologically punishing motion than their baseball counterparts, softball pitchers like Katie Burkhart can toe the rubber for days in a row and still come up with gems like the one Arizona State's ace turned in Monday night.
In front of a championship series record crowd of 7,062 at Hall of Fame Stadium, Arizona State beat Texas A&M 3-0 in the opening game of the best-of-three series. Backed up by three hits and three RBIs from freshman Krista Donnenwirth, Burkhart threw her second shutout in four starts in this year's Women's College World Series. The lefty struck out 11 Aggies and allowed just a pair of hits without a walk in seven innings.
"I thought that Burkhart obviously did a nice job against us," Texas A&M coach Jo Evans said. "We've really got to cut down on our strikeouts; 11 strikeouts. I felt like we weren't aggressive enough; she had a lot of first-pitch strikes that we took and then we put ourselves in a little bit of a hole. There were pitches that I felt like got plate, and if you're not aggressive, you're not going to be able to attack those pitches."
All told, including foul balls, Texas A&M made contact with just 35 of 110 pitches.
So maybe it's the catcher's arm people really ought to worry about.
"It does get sore," Arizona State catcher Kristen Miller admitted. "It kind of depends on what's going on. I don't come out every day and it's hurting, but for the majority of the time, it hurts coming back. So I do get tired."
Given all the pitches she's had to fire back to the circle this season, that's understandable.
Miller's name won't jump out of a box score dominated by Burkhart's strikeouts and Donnenwirth's RBIs, but she played an integral role in setting up the victory for the Sun Devils -- and not just because home plate umpire Linda Hoover would have needed a much thicker chest protector without Miller in front of her.
Make no mistake, Miller is more than just a glove. In a lineup with Donnenwirth, Katie Cochran and Mindy Cowles, she's second on the team with 17 home runs and third with 56 RBIs, numbers that earned her a place on the All-Pac-10 team. But even on nights like Monday, when the hits aren't falling, Miller makes her mark guiding Burkhart through the peaks and valleys of a game like the Tenzing Norgay to the ace's Sir Edmund Hillary.
"I trust her 100 percent behind the plate, and I think that really takes a lot of stress off me in the circle," Burkhart said. "Half the time, she's reading my mind and I'm like, 'Oh, all right, she's got the call that I want.' She does not get enough credit."
While it's difficult to say exactly how rare it is for catchers to call pitches behind the plate -- Virginia Tech's Kelsey Hoffman was among those also doing it during this World Series -- it's certainly something less than commonplace in Division I. Whether it's inexperienced catchers or simply a coach's preference for calling things themselves, a lot of the signs put down by catchers have just been relayed to them by another series of signs in the dugout. That was how things worked for the Sun Devils early in the season, until Miller went to the coaching staff and said she'd feel more comfortable if she had the freedom to act on what she saw unfolding from behind her catcher's mask.
I trust her 100 percent behind the plate, and I think that really takes a lot of stress off me in the circle. ... She does not get enough credit.
-- ASU pitcher Katie Burkhart, on catcher Kristen Miller
"It keeps you more mentally into the games, I think," Miller said. "There were times in the previous years, when our pitching coach was calling pitches, and it feels like games just go by. You're not into it as much as you are when you have to go think about, 'This hitter is going to do this; this hitter is going to do that,' and you have to really know what you're doing."
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Behind the clear protective glasses she wears under her mask, Miller looked a little like a research scientist fresh from a particularly dusty laboratory as she explained the time required for her homework.
"I watch video several times on the opponent's hitters, and I also talk it over with my coaches and see what they've seen, what they've scouted," Miller said. "As well as the pitching coach and I talk it over before each inning, who is coming up -- 'They've done this, their power is this.' So we go over it quite a bit."
Thus even in the afterglow of a victory against Alabama on Sunday that sent the Sun Devils through to the championship round for the first time in program history, Miller celebrated by shutting herself off from all earthly distractions, save the glow of a video screen showing Texas A&M's games against Florida.
"We watched it together and I watched it on my own as well," Miller said. "We work together, but I like to sit by myself and watch it by myself as well, so I can make I know what's going on and what I feel. Because a lot of the pitches I call is going with my gut instinct, on 'I know that Katie is so good that she can get that hitter out on this pitch.'"
Of course, doing the research is only part of the job description. Once preparation is put into practice, Miller must also sometimes play the role of psychologist. Usually that means tossing out the line "It ain't that big" to get a laugh and calm down her pitcher. But after just two pitches on Monday night -- one of which was a swinging strike -- she felt a little tough love was required during a quick trip to the circle.
"I could tell that she was really tight and she was trying to force her pitches and they weren't moving," Miller recalled. "So I went out there and I said, 'Hey, you just threw two terrible pitches. You need to relax and throw your pitches like you know how.' And I just walked away."
Four pitches later, Burkhart recorded her first strikeout. Eight pitches after that, she had the first of four perfect 1-2-3 innings. Seven innings later, she had the shutout.
During the course of the game, Burkhart threw first-pitch strikes to 15 batters, something Evans noted as a concern in her postgame comments. But if you listen to Miller, who was probably already studying up on possible adjustments to Texas A&M's adjustments by the time the team arrived back at its hotel, opponents all too often repeat the old military mistake of fighting the last war when they try to figure out a way to solve Burkhart.
"People try and make adjustments off of her, but the great thing about Katie is she's got several pitches we can go to," Miller said. "And you know, we went right at them, we were throwing a lot of strikes and they weren't doing too much with them. So tomorrow, if they come out aggressive, we recognize that and we'll change our plan, too. We have about six other pitches we can go to."
In this case, the tools of ignorance act only to keep one of Arizona State's most important weapons hidden from view during the games she's masterminding.
"She does not get enough credit for what she does," Burkhart said. "She's the workhorse behind the plate and I'm just throwing what she's calling and trying to stay calm."
Miller might shrug it off and say, "It ain't that big."
Don't let her fool you.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Kristen Miller's name won't jump out of a box score dominated by Katie Burkhart's strikeouts and Krista Donnenwirth's RBIs. But Arizona State's catcher is the under-the-radar reason the Sun Devils are one win away from their first national championship.