Texas' pitcher-catcher combo tough to beat, replicate


OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's no secret that when the University of Texas takes the field, all eyes are usually on senior pitcher Cat Osterman, the NCAA's all-time leader in strikeouts and the biggest name at the Women's College World Series.

But the fact that those eyes include the unwavering attention of catcher Megan Willis is more noteworthy than you might think. Because when Osterman looks in for the sign, she's getting the call directly from the junior catcher, trusting a bond that's increasingly rare among batteries these days.

It's a unique partnership that the Longhorns hope will finally get them over the hump in Oklahoma City and give Osterman the one accolade missing from a legendary career.

The idea of the crafty catcher outwitting hitters with an ability to call the perfect pitch sequence is quickly becoming the stuff of folklore. In both baseball and softball, even at the highest levels, catchers increasingly are little more than living telegraphs, relaying signals from coaches in the dugout.

But in Willis' head dwells a talent almost as remarkable as Osterman's repertoire of pitches.

"Coming in with Cat, I know that she has a great mind for the game, and she also respects the knowledge that I have for hitters and for what kind of pitches she throws," Willis said after the team's final practice Wednesday. "So she's always vouched for me on the other end to call her games."

Osterman has played with the best players in the world, taking a redshirt season in 2004 to play with the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Athens, but she had no reservations trusting her younger teammate.

"Megan and I are always on the same page, and we have been since the day she stepped in at Texas," Osterman said. "It's just the natural progression for her to call my pitches. It's easy because she's such a good catcher and she has a mind for the game, so I can put full confidence in her calling the game."

Willis took over pitch-calling duties midway through last season, but it was a development the coaching staff had been eyeing for some time.

"It was really just a matter of time; we really had no doubts that that was going to evolve," coach Connie Clark said. "Both Marla Looper, my assistant coach who handles pitching duties, and myself are former pitchers, so we really feel like you want to establish that battery being able to call.

"Because I think in the flow of the game, and working with each other, you get done with an inning and you've got the pitcher and catcher down in the dugout comparing notes, talking through things and then going back out and they're right on the same page."

The college scene is crowded with great catchers these days, but in taking over pitch-calling duties, Willis has certainly staked her claim to the title of best all-around backstop.

Her defense sometimes goes unappreciated for a team known more for its prolific ace and its occasionally paltry offensive totals, but Willis was recently named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. She's thrown out 41 percent of the relatively few runners who have dared test her arm and has just four passed balls on the season -- a remarkable total given the movement associated with Osterman's pitches.

And on a team always looking for reliable bats, Willis has blossomed from an offensive afterthought her first two seasons into a true threat under first-year assistant coach and hitting guru Corrie Hill. Just a .218 hitter with 19 RBI in her first two seasons, Willis is hitting .285 with 25 RBI entering play in Oklahoma City, the latter total good for third on the team behind Desiree Williams and Tina Boutelle.

"There isn't anything else I would want," Willis said of her ability to contribute across the board. "I love catching, and I love being in that role. And it's fun, obviously, to be hitting and have that. It's just a good time, and I'm kind of rolling with it and having a good time with it."

An Arizona native who seems to sport a perpetual smile, whether knocking in runs or leading the choreography during the team's increasingly famous dugout dances -- she was even smiling as she freed her shoulder from a large ice pack while answering questions on Wednesday -- Willis exudes a carefree spirit.

But don't let the grin fool you into thinking she'd rather be lounging in the sun.

"She really studies hitters well, she really gets into the scouting reports," Clark said. "Her and Cat will spend time so they really know the hitters inside and out. She's very heady, she really enjoys the game within the game, trying to read their feet and reading what they're doing."

Of course, generally the other team is far more concerned with finding a way to hit Osterman than she and Willis are about finding an opponent's weaknesses. They just try to keep their approach simple.

"No one in this world pitches like Cat; that's basically what we think in our heads," Willis said. "Yeah, this team might be good at hitting drop balls, but have they hit Cat's drop ball? You have to think of it that way. We'll go in with her game plan, and it's pretty much the same all the time, unless that team has really practiced hard and they come out and make an adjustment after the first time through the lineup."

Osterman gets most of the attention (a gold medal before your 22nd birthday will do that), but neither player discounts the importance of the bond between them.

"You can't really teach that or anything, it's just a bond that happened," Willis said. "On the field, we just click. We have the same knowledge when it comes to batters, and I think that's our little thing we have. I don't really know how it happened, but it just kind of started that way and it's kept on going."

Added Osterman, "There's really no bickering or anything between her and I. We're usually on the same page, and we'll discuss what she's thinking and what I'm thinking, and we'll go with a compromise. It's a relationship that you probably can't duplicate."

And as brilliant as Osterman has been throughout her time at Texas, including two previous trips to the WCWS, it's a level of trust that might come in handy as she prepares to shoulder a heavy burden throughout the Longhorns' run in the bracket, starting Thursday against Arizona State.

After an 11-inning win against Arizona in an early game during last year's WCWS, Osterman could only watch as Megan Denny took the ball for a game against UCLA later in the day and the Longhorns were eliminated in a tight 3-0 affair.

But at Wednesday's press conference, Clark made it clear that her senior ace would get the ball to start every game this year, with Denny pitching only out of the bullpen.

It may appear that Osterman is alone on an island, as the cameras close in on the lines of concentration creasing her forehead and the fate of Texas' season hangs in the balance. And indeed, every eye inside Don E. Porter Hall of Fame Stadium will be on her at that moment.

But Osterman's eyes will be looking somewhere else, waiting for the signal from the one person she trusts most to help her get it done.

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