U.S. pitching staff stands tall at World Cup

Updated: July 19, 2007, 5:56 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The organizers of the modern Olympics may have been thinking more of altitude than height in crafting the second part of the motto "faster, higher, stronger," but faster, taller, stronger might be good enough for American gold in softball.

Building toward next year's Olympics in Beijing, the last in which softball will be contested, the U.S. national team captured the title at the World Cup of Softball by beating familiar foe Japan 3-0 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. And as much as the team's offense sprayed the ball all over the park for six games in the tournament, scoring a total of 40 runs and run-ruling opponents four times, it was the pitching that stood tallest, both figuratively on a nearly perfect stat sheet and literally each time imposing hurlers Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott and Alicia Hollowell took the circle.

Each of the top four pitchers for the United States stands at least 6-foot-1, with Abbott claiming top honors at 6-foot-3. Even if you discard the former Tennessee ace, the remaining three are the same heights as the starting frontcourt the United States women's basketball senior national team sent out for last year's World Championships.

By way of comparison, no other team in Oklahoma City had even one pitcher taller than six feet.

University of Arizona star Taryne Mowatt offered the most recent reminder that a pitcher doesn't have to be tall to be great, and Japanese ace Yukiko Ueno -- who wasn't with her team at the World Cup for undisclosed reasons that most assumed involved wanting to hide her from the Americans until the Olympics -- isn't a giant by any means. But height offers advantages that go beyond releasing the ball a few inches closer to the plate.

Cat Osterman
AP PhotoCat Osterman struck out a World Cup record 13 batters in the championship game.

"Cat, her long arms help her spin the ball," catcher Jenny Topping explained. "Monica Abbott, her tall, long legs makes her throw the ball very hard. Finch, same thing, long legs; Alicia, she spins it. And [Jennie] Ritter, she throws very hard for someone who is smaller. Each of them are a little different, but pitchers tend to have some of the same qualities, the mind-set and the drive to win and be successful."

Osterman got the start and the win against Japan on Thursday, striking out a World Cup record 13 batters and allowing just three hits in a complete game shutout. U.S. coach Mike Candrea mixed up his rotation during the five-day tournament, starting each of the five pitchers on his roster (former University of Michigan ace Ritter completed the staff) at least once. And although Candrea undoubtedly has the depth to keep rotating right through the Olympics, Osterman looks more and more like the best pitcher in the world with each passing tournament clincher.

"She's become a smarter pitcher and a little more focused," Candrea said. "There's a lot of growing up that has to take place to be able to walk out there and perform at that level, and I think she's done a nice job with that. The more she's in those situations, the better she is going to get."

Rather than producing extra power and speed, as Abbott's lanky frame does, Osterman's long levers help her generate even more movement on her pitches. Other pitchers throw harder than the southpaw, but nobody in the world is better at moving the ball around the strike zone on different planes. Like her teammates, Osterman can't help but roll her eyes a little bit at yet another question about her height -- the softball equivalent of asking a tall guy whether he plays basketball -- but she doesn't deny that her frame has its benefits.

"I think in certain ways it does," Osterman said. "For me, my fingers are probably the biggest thing; I have longer fingers than most. I think us being tall, getting out there, we're obviously very aware of our bodies and know how to use them the right way."

Slow starts in the first inning were about the only sore spot for American pitchers for much of the World Cup, but Osterman put on a display to open the championship game. She started off all three Japanese hitters in the inning with first-pitch called strikes, each on a different part of the plate, before finishing off Misato Kawano and Eri Yamada on rise balls for swinging strikeouts to end the frame.

Osterman had outstanding control and an impressive array of breaking pitches while starring at the University of Texas, but national team pitching coach Chuck D'Arcy -- one of the greatest men's fastpitch pitchers in recent memory -- has stressed working all four quadrants of the zone to make full use of the movement she's able to generate.

"For me, in college I worked down a lot," Osterman said. "I didn't work up as much as I could, and actually, it's opened up a lot for my game if I can throw up. When I use the up pitch, it's awesome because it opens up my down pitch and I get them looking both ways. It's just a great way for us to be able to open up holes that if we just went down or side to side, we wouldn't have."

Even if only three of the pitchers on the World Cup roster -- likely Osterman, Finch, and either Abbott or Hollowell -- make the final cut for China once three-time Olympian Lisa Fernandez returns (Fernandez was in Oklahoma City scouting for the United States but continues to train on her own after giving birth to son Antonio 18 months ago), the Americans will have both the biggest and the best pitching rotation in Beijing. And although the idea of being the biggest overshadows the fact they're the best too often for D'Arcy's liking, even his protest suggests that the size has a psychological benefit commensurate, if not superior, to any physical edge.

"It's some advantage, but there are so many factors that go into being a great pitcher that it's not the only criteria," D'Arcy demurred. "I know that foreign countries look at our pitchers and see what they consider to be an insurmountable advantage, and that is the height, but that's not really the case. Fundamentals are so important, and I think our pitchers have great fundamentals right now."

In the aftermath of a second consecutive World Cup title, and on the heels of last year's World Championship title, the pitching performances of Osterman and the rest of the American pitchers were more than just impressive. The wins and commanding numbers are critical to maintaining American dominance in the sport.

Since the pitching distance in international softball was moved from 40 feet to 43 feet in 2002, the United States has allowed a total of 20 runs in the 56 games it has played in the Olympics, World Championships, Pan American Games and World Cup, winning six of the seven events in that span.

"Offensively, you're going to see more games like this in the Olympic Games than you are the games that you've seen earlier in the week," Candrea said. "I know that we're going to win based on our pitching and our defense, and then, obviously, get timely hitting."

Japan beat the United States once in the World Championships this past fall, beat Candrea's team for the title in the first World Cup in 2005 and stayed with the hosts Monday night despite leaving its best pitcher at home. The gap is closing, but it hasn't closed.

"I think Japan is always changing, they're always finding news way to try and beat us," Topping said. "They played a very good game tonight, but as they're getting better, we're getting better, too. So if we're not prepared, yeah, we could lose. But when we're prepared and we're at our best, there's nobody that can beat us."

In other words, beating the United States remains a tall order.

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.