Jessica Mendoza, Kelly Barnhill and the quest for pitch perfection
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 27 issue, The Month of Mayhem. Subscribe today!
With a rise ball that leaves batters swinging at ghosts, Florida's Kelly Barnhill is a dreaded sight in the circle. But after the Gators' runner-up finish last year, which included an epic 17-inning loss to Oklahoma in Game 1 of the national championship series, Barnhill won't be satisfied until she claims the title of Women's College World Series champ. As Florida heads into the postseason, ESPN's Jessica Mendoza spoke to Barnhill about her updated arsenal, her struggle with illegal-pitch calls and her 2020 Olympic dreams.
Jessica Mendoza: In the offseason, you added swim workouts, a nutritionist and a sports psychologist to your routine. When did it occur to you that "I need to be doing things differently to get myself better"?
Kelly Barnhill: There was a realization that hit at the World Series last year. We lost. We're not the national champions. This other team gets to celebrate. They get to have the confetti thrown. You're just sitting there watching them feel happy and dogpile, and you're like, "This sucks."
JM: You guys have bracelets to remind you of the combined score?
KB: Yep. 12-9. Coach [Tim] Walton didn't want us to forget about it. He wanted us to remember it and hold on to that so we're thinking about it. And each day we want to get 1 percent better. If everyone is getting 1 percent better, then the team is getting better.
JM: How has that been sitting with you?
KB: Looking at that 12-9, that's a three-run difference. Three more runs to win a national championship. Or not giving up those three runs to win a national championship.
JM: You went 26-4 last year with an 0.51 ERA; you were USA Softball collegiate player of the year ... and you felt like you needed to add a drop ball?
KB: To go to that next level, I needed to be able to change up speeds a little bit more. My drop ball comes in at 57, 58 mph. Rise balls are generally 63 to 65. Fastballs can be up to 70, 71. If people keep on looking up all the time, or they're looking for the hard stuff all the time, then eventually they're going to catch up with it. Take [former Florida pitcher] Delanie Gourley, for example; her changeup is phenomenal. She had people swinging at balls in the dirt or swinging before it got there. Seeing the success of people like her, I'm like, "I want to have that pitch."
JM: You had your first perfect game this season. Were you aware it was happening?
KB: There was a point where I realized, "Oh, OK. It's a no-hitter. Oh, wait, have I walked anyone? No? Oh. Stop. Stop thinking. Focus on something else. Go pitch by pitch. It doesn't matter. Refocus. Go to the next batter. Next pitch, that's all that matters."
JM: What happens to your heart rate?
KB: I know my hype number -- it's how excited you get when you play. You don't want to be too high; you don't want to be too low. I pitch better when I'm not getting super excited. That's why, a lot of the time, you'll see me take a moment. I might even close my eyes and I'll take a breath on the mound. You're going through your whole body within a couple of seconds. Is anything tight right now? Think about releasing that. And then going to go-to phrases like, "Nobody can beat my best pitch." Just visualize it.
JM: You've been called for illegal pitches this season. Can you break that down?
KB: It's been a mental and physical battle. It's very frustrating. It's thousands and thousands and thousands of pitches of muscle memory. We've worked on it a lot. We'll be in bullpens, and I'll be like, "OK, I dragged [my foot], right?" And they're like, "Eh, kind of." You're saying, "OK, I'm going to do this," and my body is like, "Wait, what? This isn't how you've been doing it for the last however many years." I feel like I'm not explaining this very well.
JM: No, I think you are. It's not simple. I really don't think I knew a pitcher growing up who didn't, in some form, hop or ...
KB: I sometimes hear, "Oh, she's a cheater. She's getting this unfair advantage." And I don't feel like it's like that. Especially with the difference between international and college rules. We'll start fixing illegal pitches or getting my drag a little bit lower throughout the year, and then during the summer, there's no check on it. I'm just working on throwing the best I can to compete at the international level. And then you come back and you have to fix it again. A lot of the great pitchers, like Monica [Abbott] and Cat [Osterman], they were always called on illegal pitches too. I guess it's become a big issue this year because it was one of the focus points for the NCAA.
JM: With softball back in the 2020 Olympics, you have the opportunity to represent the United States. What does that feel like?
KB: When they took softball out of the Olympics, I was in middle school, and I ran up to my room sobbing. Playing in the Olympics is the highest honor an athlete can receive. When they took it back, oh gosh, I cried then too. I was a big ball of tears because I was so happy to have that opportunity again.
JM: Watching the Winter Olympics, did you start to visualize what it could be like to be there?
KB: First of all, I had so much gear envy. All of the puffy USA jackets. I'm like, "Oh my god, those are beautiful." We're not telling my parents this, but I bought myself one of the Olympic medal stand jackets. It was a lot of money but totally worth it. And following all the athletes on social media about how much they're loving the Games, it makes me so excited. I want to be in the Olympics. It's so hard to even express how much I want that.