Abbott's performances in circle have Oklahoma City buzzing

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Sometimes growth is measured with championships, records and legions of adoring fans. Other times progress shows through in less dramatic ways. For a pitcher, a program and a sport, all are on display when Monica Abbott takes the mound at the Women's College World Series.

On a Saturday morning in Bricktown, the downtown district of Oklahoma City where renovated warehouses and old buildings now house a variety of bars and restaurants, Uncommon Grounds -- a pleasantly quirky independent coffee shop -- was about the only place showing any signs of life.

Inside, a group of three local men in varying stages of middle age sat at one table discussing the news of the day, from upcoming building projects to local politics. And then, as these conversations often do, the topic of choice wandered in the direction of sports. Only they weren't talking about the gridiron outlook for the Oklahoma Sooners or the baseball news of the day.

The center of the conversation was "that tall left-handed pitcher for Tennessee."

They were talking about Abbott leading Tennessee past defending champion Arizona in the Women's College World Series on Friday night.

Two days later, Abbott was back in the circle, squaring off against Northwestern with a spot in the championship series on the line. Abbott's Lady Vols would have gotten a second chance to advance if they dropped the first game against the Wildcats, but the southpaw made certain her team would have the evening off, striking out 17 in a 3-0 win.

As a result, Tennessee will play on Monday night in the opening game of the best-of-three championship series; it will be the program's first appearance in the World Series finale after back-to-back third-place finishes. Pitching every inning of her team's three wins here, Abbott has allowed no earned runs while striking out 49 in 21 innings.

"It's awesome because we've come so close the past three years," Abbott said. "We came out strong today and very focused, because we know what it's like to come through the loser's bracket with the two games in one day and how hard it is. So we came out really focused, and we wanted to get it done in the first game."

Playing for the national championship is what Abbott seemed destined to do since arriving in Knoxville from Salinas, Calif., as a tall freshman with lethal stuff. Abbott went 45-10 as a freshman, striking out 582 batters and leading a team that had finished under .500 in the SEC the previous season to the brink of the World Series. The strikeouts continued to pile up and the Lady Vols made consecutive appearances in Oklahoma City, but neither the team nor the ace seemed to be able to come up with the right plays or pitches at the right moments to reach the final series.

"I think the biggest thing is Monica is growing," Tennessee co-coach Karen Weekly said. "And sometimes with really talented kids out of high school, it's hard for them to make changes and to be open to change, because they've been so successful doing it the same way for so long. And I think going for the national team, seeing how different people do different things, having different coaches make suggestions to her, coming back she's a little more open to the things our pitching coach has suggested to her, too."

Lovie Jung, the starting second baseman for the national team and a power-hitting legend in her college career at the University of Arizona, has seen plenty of the young prodigy. She's seen the same remarkable repertoire of power pitches that has long wowed college fans, but she's also watched a kid growing into her talent alongside the best players in the world.

"I think she's grown a lot," Jung said. "You have to consider that all these pitchers, when they're at their colleges they're the top dog. She's been their go-to pitcher, Cat [Osterman] has been Texas' go-to-pitcher and [Jennie] Finch at Arizona. And it's hard when you come onto a staff where you've got five All-American pitchers from all over the country and all different types of schools. So I think for a pitcher, especially as young as she is, coming into a pitching staff, that's difficult. … Going through that helped her a lot."

The irony of this season may well turn out to be that in the year she captured records for career and single-season strikeouts, her individual talent took something of a backseat to a focus and mind-set centered solely on standing in the circle on Monday night in Oklahoma City.

I know the national team coaching staff and players [are] talking about that and that there just aren't kids out there that are 6-foot-3 and left-handed and can throw the ball 70 mph and have barely tapped their potential. And I think this year, we're really starting to see her grow into the pitcher she could be.

Karen Weekly

More and more often, moments that might have once led to catastrophe are sliding off Abbott's back. Such was the case against Texas A&M, when Abbott walked the bases loaded to open the game and then proceeded to escape unscathed on her way to a no-hitter.

"I think you get nervous at moments, but the whole general calmness has evolved over time," Abbott said. "It's nice, because with that confidence, I get a lot of strength from that. And I think our team gives each other a lot of calm and confidence building off each other."

And when it comes to the mere mechanics of pitching, Abbott long gained an edge on the competition with every inch she grew. As catcher Shannon Doepking put it, the 6-foot-3 ace's natural stride carries her almost out of the circle by the time she releases the ball from what started out as 43 feet.

"Her stride length is so much more than an average person's height, so just her stride alone makes it even closer," Jung said. "And the fact that she already throws in the high 60s to low 70s makes it even that much tougher."

Blessed with such unique natural gifts, Abbott was so good so soon for Tennessee that it was easy to forget that even pitchers on pace to set records have room for improvement.

"She's very young; that's the exciting thing for her," Weekly said. "I know the national team coaching staff and players [are] talking about that and that there just aren't kids out there that are 6-foot-3 and left-handed and can throw the ball 70 mph and have barely tapped their potential. And I think this year, we're really starting to see her grow into the pitcher she could be."

And as she gets closer to the finished product, people everywhere are taking notice of the tall left-hander for the University of Tennessee.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.