Washington shortstop Sis Bates starring in passionate glove story at Women's College World Series
OKLAHOMA CITY -- No matter what happens in the best-of-three championship round of the Women's College World Series, Washington has but a matter of days left with two personalities that helped shape the best left side of an infield in college softball.
One is senior third baseman Taylor Van Zee, the fast-talking, short-hop-picking defensive stalwart.
The other is Carmella, who has no last name. Just a brand name. She is the glove that sophomore shortstop Sis Bates describes as her "beautiful little baby." Most Huskies break in a new glove each season. Bates couldn't part with Carmella after last season. She grew attached to the feel of the perfectly broken-in leather -- stiff enough to make it easy to transfer the ball from pocket to hand for a throw but loose enough to squeeze the ball on a backhand.
So Carmella remains. For a few more days, at least.
"She's getting a little old on me," Bates admitted this week. "I might have to bust out a new glove next year, but I love her so much."
Fortunately for the Huskies, their Mother of Gloves, for fans of a certain popular show, isn't going anywhere for a few years. The best defender in college softball is the biggest reason Washington's identity in this championship pursuit is its defense. And it is through playing defense that Bates continues growing into her identity.
More than its lineup or even the pitching of freshman Gabbie Plain, Washington's defense was the headline en route to the program's first championship series since winning the title in 2009. These Huskies didn't commit an error until the final inning of their second game, no small feat with how much Plain and Taran Alvelo relied on them. Entering the championship round, Washington made 51 of 63 outs in the field. Bates and Van Zee were involved in more than half of those, often spectacularly so.
"The left side of the field was off the charts," Oklahoma's Patty Gasso said after her team's loss on the opening day. "They were outstanding, and those are the kind of plays that you need to make to win championships and they did. Man, they were really, really, really impressive."
But you notice Washington's infield defense even when the ball isn't in play. Around the horn, from first baseman Kirstyn Thomas and second baseman Taryn Atlee to Bates and Van Zee on the left side, the Huskies are a constant cabaret show of joking, dancing and talking. The only time they are still is in the split second before a pitch is delivered -- and not even always then.
"It's the most fun for me because I can scream and yell," Van Zee said of defense. "People tell me I'm crazy out there, but it's so much fun. You just put it all out there. That's my favorite part, screaming, yelling, making plays, watching Sis make 'SC Top 10' stuff almost every weekend."
Washington assistant coach J.T. D'Amico, essentially the defensive coordinator, described it as the difference between acting as if you aren't taking something seriously and acting as if there is no place in the world you would rather be. The second requires total commitment and focus. But why hide how much you enjoy it?
There is no better practitioner of that combination of energy and excellence of craft at the moment than Bates, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. In two years at high-volume positions, second base a season ago and now shortstop, she has committed just eight errors in more than 120 starts. She showed off her full array of skills this week, the range to get to balls deep in the hole, the quick transfer and strong arm to get the ball across the diamond, and the athleticism to chase down balls in the outfield or turn double plays. And she did it all with an unmistakable joy, unafraid to be herself in front of thousands in person and more on television.
"I think that softball has played a big role in my identity and who I am -- and how comfortable I am," Bates said. "I've always been kind of goofy, but only with certain people. Now I have this outlet where I can be myself."
She said the Huskies call themselves unicorns to celebrate their individual uniqueness, which is absolutely the kind of thing that might make a lot of people roll their eyes -- except that she makes it sound so simultaneously self-deprecating and sincere that you let it go.
"I smile a lot -- like always. I'm always kind of goofy," Bates continued. "But I feel like softball gives me an opportunity to be a leader and be loud and have my voice. Other places, I'd probably just be giggling. But softball helps me be a leader and find myself."
She has always loved defense like that, has done so for as long as she can remember. It helped steer her to Washington. Perhaps curiously for someone so expressive on the field, she loved watching famously stoic Derek Jeter play shortstop. But her other idol was Jenn Salling, the shortstop who won a title with Washington in 2009. The kid from California's Central Valley was drawn to the Huskies and its lineage of glove work, from Salling and Ashley Charters to Ali Aguilar, who kept Bates from shortstop a season ago, and now Bates and Van Zee.
True to form, Bates didn't play it cool when Salling was an assistant a season ago.
"I was super fangirling because her picture is on my fridge, signed," Bates said. "She's so good. Working with her and sharing that love with her was just so cool."
While no one would ever describe Salling's on-field demeanor as goofy, the Canadian was never scared to let her intensity show. She played the position true to her own identity, just like the stoic Aguilar or charismatic Charters. To live up to that lineage, to possibly even exceed it by the time she's done, Bates needs to be true to herself, too.
"I'll say this, the energy that you see out there, it's real," D'Amico said. "There are some kids over time that can fake you out. They can put on that emotional show. But that's as real a human being as you're going to find. That's who she is."
Washington's defensive success is not all about positive energy and enthusiasm. It isn't all about unicorns or gloves treated like offspring. The Huskies are the best for a lot of tangible reasons. They look for edges down to the smallest level of detail.
From past trips to Hall of Fame Stadium, the coaching staff knows to work with infielders on visually picking up the first baseman before making a throw -- the vast backdrop of the large two-tiered grandstand is unlike anything players have to deal with in the regular season. The coaches plan for the sweat that comes with playing in Oklahoma temperatures, keeping not just throwing hands dry but glove hands, too, so that moisture doesn't seep through the leather and onto the ball. It doesn't hurt that they know something about wet conditions, even if it's more rain than sweat in Seattle.
There is tradition and craftsmanship to how the Huskies play defense, something as simple as throwing the ball around the horn in a carefully choreographed sequence of steps and eye contact. There is a lot of talent to it, too, recruits with quick hands and strong arms.
But there is also passion, the intangible element of just how much someone loves defense.
It is all why a defender may be the most exciting player in this World Series.
"Her energy is unmatched, and we rally behind it," coach Heather Tarr said of Bates. "It gives us confidence, and it definitely helps us keep the door shut a lot of times on other teams."