Workload gives Nelson a Game 1 edge over Lawrie

June, 1, 2009
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Stacey Nelson and Danielle Lawrie proved throughout the season that they are the two best pitchers in the country. It's not revisionist history to separate them from the crowd of would-be contenders now that they're squaring off for the national championship; they separated themselves by dominating two of the toughest schedules in the country.

Nelson can be overpowering by any abstract measure, but she's truly dominant because of her ability to make hitters beat themselves. She confounds them with an array of pitches and leaves them guessing at which they can hit and which will result in little more than weak pop outs or groundouts.

It's no coincidence that both Arizona's Mike Candrea and Michigan's Carol Hutchins talked after losses about their respective teams' inability to adjust to Nelson and her corresponding ability to counter any eventual adjustments, and that Alabama was the only team that has made her look mortal to this point. The Crimson Tide had faced her four times this season and numerous times during the past few seasons. Without a lot of looks and a lot of All-Americans, the odds of making Nelson sweat are lottery-long.

Lawrie is the international veteran and the more traditional postseason workhorse, bringing a slightly higher strikeout rate (10.4 per seven innings, compared to Nelson's still-elite 8.9 per seven innings) and a slightly higher risk-reward element (0.85 extra-base hits per seven innings, compared to Nelson's 0.56 extra-base hits per seven innings).

But if the two aces are equals in the results they produce in the circle, they don't enter Monday's game on equal footing.

Look at the number of pitches each has thrown in the NCAA tournament.

Regional: 578
Super regional: 212
WCWS: 467
Total: 1,257

Regional: 189
Super regional: 170
WCWS: 277
Total: 636

At this time of year, the fact that a softball pitcher's motion is easier on the arm than a baseball pitcher's motion tends to wildly morph into the myth that softball pitchers can throw all day and still have the arm and legs to play some ultimate Frisbee at night.

One look at all the ice on Lawrie's arm after a game ought to dispel the notion that 100 pitches take no toll on the arm, and yet that's only a weakened branch compared to the tree trunk of a pitcher's legs. Florida coach Tim Walton, a former college baseball pitcher, touched on this topic before the season, talking about the importance of Nelson's improved conditioning through her years in Gainesville to her success.

"To say the body doesn't get sore when it throws 120 pitches in a game is absolutely crazy," Walton said in late January. "It's easier on the arm, but it's not easier on the body. The body still takes a toll throwing 120 pitches, and then having to turn around and possibly throw in the next game of a doubleheader. So I give our girls -- I give every girl, but I give our pitchers a lot of credit for having the ability to be able to separate themselves from the game and the competition and really [continue] competing at a high level. And knowing the difference between being sore and being hurt.

"That's the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete is they play through pain."

Florida's dominance and the presence of Stephanie Brombacher eased Nelson's workload this season, leaving her fresh now, but Walton might as well have included some stock tips, given how precisely his comments forecasted the challenge that now faces his foe. Consider that included within Lawrie's pitch count is a pair of doubleheaders: 285 pitches in two games against Georgia on Sunday and a staggering 395 pitches in two games against Massachusetts on the final day of the Amherst Regional.

That's the storyline of this championship series, whether Lawrie talks about it or not. (And never one to publicly linger too long on the philosophical side of things, she won't dwell on any possible negatives.)

It's not so much Lawrie's taking on Nelson as Lawrie's taking on time and physiology.

Lawrie is not quite the dominant pitcher she was in February. A few more pitches per game hang in the zone (two home runs in 30.2 innings here and six in 78.2 innings in the postseason, compared to six in 260 regular-season innings). Her counts go a little deeper, and she loses the additional hitter to a walk perhaps once every game or two. But even in her production at the plate, where she's hit three home runs and driven in 13 runs in the postseason, or stepping up with a vintage effort in a tight game against Arizona State, you see a pitcher doing what she can to plug the leaks in precision.

It's the mental toughness that Washington coach Heather Tarr identified as far back as February as the biggest evolution in Lawrie's game after a year with the Canadian Olympic team.

"I think taking a year off and spending it with older players and with the national team and international softball, it helped her just be more mature, mentally stronger," Tarr said in February at the Campbell-Cartier Classic in San Diego. "Physically, I think she's pretty much what she is; she's going to be what Danielle is going to be. But I think mentally, it kind of helped her take a step back and recognize, what does she really want to do in the game?"

After pitching 22 innings in the two games against Massachusetts on May 17, a little after 1 a.m., Lawrie offered this take on the specter of fatigue.

"You've got to look at what you've done to get there," she said. "You've got to look at all the money you've put in the bank. And you're not done spending."

Matched up against her lone equal in Nelson, she'll have to go for broke.

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



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