Texas' pitcher-catcher combo tough to beat, replicate

Megan Willis might be the most underappreciated member of Texas' lineup -- both defensively and offensively -- but she has the respect and support of the one person who really matters, writes Graham Hays.

Updated: June 1, 2006, 11:33 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

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.

Texas Spotlight
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Fittingly, an afternoon of menacing storm clouds passed over Oklahoma City without so much as a rumble on Wednesday, leaving a setting sun that appeared to have a distinctly burnt orange glow to hover overhead as Cat Osterman accepted USA Softball Player of Year honors for the third time in her four seasons at the University of Texas.

"This being my senior year, I wanted to go out on top and I wanted to go out strong," Osterman told presenter Dot Richardson after acknowledging her parents among the crowd at Don E. Porter Hall of Fame Stadium.

So she did, just as she burst on the scene in much the same way as a freshman in 2002. That first season, in which Osterman posted a 36-8 record with a 0.83 ERA and 554 strikeouts for a Texas team that finished under .500 the previous season, was the only time she didn't claim the prestigious award.

The all-time leader in career strikeouts, Osterman has 590 strikeouts so far this season, giving her two of the top four single-season strikeout marks in history (and four of the top 12). Entering Thursday's game against Arizona State, Osterman has allowed a total of 41 earned runs in her last three college seasons, a span of nearly 800 innings during which she's won 99 games.

Arizona senior pitcher Alicia Hollowell and Tennessee junior pitcher Monica Abbott were the other finalists for this year's award.

-- Graham Hays

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."

Texas Longhorns
Coach: Connie Clark
Record: 54-7
Road/Neutral record: 25-6
Big 12 record: 15-2

Road to Oklahoma City (No. 3 overall seed)

vs. UT-San Antonio, 4-0 W (Austin Regional)
vs. Indiana, 3-0 W (Austin Regional)
vs. Utah, 3-0 W (Austin Regional)
vs. Washington, 1-0 W (Austin Super Regional)
vs. Washington 9-1 W (Austin Super Regional)

Notable nonconference wins: Arizona (2), Fresno St., Louisiana-Lafayette, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Stanford (2), Washington

Notable nonconference losses: Arizona, Michigan, Texas St.

Desiree Williams, SS So. .344 11 38 38 15
Tina Boutelle, CF Sr. .311 9 26 40 24
Chez Sievers, 2B Sr. .270 1 15 17 3
Megan Willis, C Jr. .277 3 24 10 2
Amber Hall, RF Sr. .275 5 20 23 10
Kacie Gaskin, DP Fr. .231 2 10 10 5
Jacqueline Williams, 1B Jr. .216 5 22 13 5
Crystal Saenz, 3B Fr. .153 1 7 11 3
Shannon Thomas, LF Fr. .2678 0 16 29 20

Pitchers YR IP W-L ERA K BB
Cat Osterman Sr. 253 36-2 0.38 579 41
Megan Denny Sr. 151.2 17-5 1.57 209 67

Note: Stats are through the games of May 26.

Getting to know the Longhorns

The Longhorns are more than just one player, but perhaps no team in college sports right now is more defined by a single name than Texas and Cat Osterman. Already a legend as her college career enters its final week, Osterman has allowed just 78 earned runs in four seasons and earned an Olympic gold medal in Athens in 2004. What Osterman doesn't have is an NCAA championship, but with an offense that has more pop than in past seasons, the Longhorns head to Oklahoma City with arguably their best chance yet to win their first title.

Osterman will likely keep things close, but the production of emerging star slugger Desiree Williams and middle-of-the-order hitters like Tina Boutelle, Megan Willis and Amber Hall may determine whether arguably the best college pitcher of all time goes out on top. Texas batters ranked seventh in the Big 12 in batting average, although only Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas hit more home runs.

Player to Watch: Tina Boutelle, CF

Cat Osterman is unquestionably the headliner for Texas, but while one-woman acts may play on Broadway, they don't cut it in Oklahoma City. Watching Osterman baffle overmatched hitters, it's tempting to think Texas can march to a title with a string of 1-0 wins. But the team's own history in Oklahoma City suggests it's impossible to prevail with that small a margin of error.

Osterman will need support from the offense, and nobody knows that better than Tina Boutelle and the three other senior position players who have been down this road twice before. And perhaps like never before, Boutelle is capable of making a major difference on the scoreboard.

New hitting coach Corrie Hill, who came to Austin this season after running a UT-San Antonio program that annually ranked among the nation's top-hitting teams, has been credited with instilling a new attitude and producing a more potent lineup. It hasn't been an unqualified success -- the Longhorns rank last among the eight teams in Oklahoma City in both batting average and OPS -- but the team is undeniably better at putting the ball over the fence with a school record 42 home runs.

Seemingly no player has taken the new philosophy more to heart than Boutelle. A starter almost from the day she arrived in 2003 (she's started 59 games this season and 208 of 215 appearances in four seasons), Boutelle is the team's primary slugging sidekick to sophomore shortstop Desiree Williams, a candidate for USA Softball Player of the Year. After hitting just nine home runs in her first three seasons, Boutelle exceeded that total in one season when she hit her 10th home run of the year in the super regional against Washington. And the power hasn't come at the expense of her all-around game, as she's hitting .311 with 26 RBI and a team-leading 24 stolen bases.

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.

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