Boom or bust, the rise ball brings a unique spin to the Women's College World Series

Chelsea Wilkinson and her rise ball helped Georgia pull off the biggest upset of the super regionals. Courtesy Georgia

Home to not only the Women's College World Series as spring turns to summer but also numerous international competitions, ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City sees its share of memorable pitching performances. It will never offer one better than the night eight years ago when Virginia Tech's Angela Tincher, a senior at the time, no-hit Team USA during the Olympic-era peak.

In those seven spotless innings was proof that no Goliath is too big for a resolute David. Particularly if the latter puts away her slingshot, places her middle and ring fingers along the seams of a softball-size stone, tucks her index finger along the side and launches that stone skyward from the proper point by her hip with precisely the correct amount of backspin.

A rise ball can rule the world -- or at least the stadium that represents it to softball players.

"That's kind of what I lived and died on," Tincher said of the rise ball. "I used it more as a setup pitch, a go-to pitch. If I was behind in the count, I would throw it in the zone. That was my bread and butter."

As eight teams gather this week in Oklahoma City to settle an NCAA championship, fans new and old will witness one of softball's proprietary marvels. It isn't the only pitch that works. It isn't the only pitch an ace needs; an ace might not need one at all. But the rise ball might be the only pitch with its own aura.

Throwing from an elevated mound, a baseball pitcher cannot bend gravity to make a ball rise. Throwing with a windmill motion from the same elevation as the batter, a softball pitcher can.

Watching the ball jump over the bat, with hitters no more able to stop themselves from swinging than Charlie Brown can stop trying to kick the football, is a sight to behold. Listening to the rise ball is no less mesmerizing. Former Olympian Lauren Lappin was among those to face Tincher that night in 2008.

"She had crazy spin," Lappin said. "She's the type of pitcher that you could hear the spin as the ball was approaching you. You heard it whiz past you. You don't often -- you hear velocity sometimes, but to hear that tight spin, you know that ball is rotating a lot as it's moving by you."

The rise ball's allure and potency were on full display in that game. That was also the case later that year in the World Series game in which Virginia Tech's ace struck out 19 batters in the toughest of tough-luck losses. But it doesn't take a Tincher, the only NCAA pitcher not named Monica Abbott or Cat Osterman who reached 2,000 career strikeouts, to do that.

Go back in time just one week. Georgia eliminated No. 1 overall seed Florida on Kaylee Puailoa's pinch-hit, two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the seventh inning, a hit that will live forever in highlights. But the Bulldogs were positioned to win the super regional because the Gators couldn't solve Chelsea Wilkinson, one of the rise ball's most adept current practitioners.

Wilkinson struck out just three batters in 14 innings in the Gainesville super regional, but she befuddled the Gators for two games with a rise that produced popups and weak grounders, just as it had throughout the regional a week earlier.

Baseball lore holds that one of the earliest dividing lines between those with the ability to play the game and the rest of us takes the form of not a straight line but a curved one. The first time a young baseball batter sees a real curveball, the degree of difficulty in batting changes dramatically. Softball has curveballs and screwballs too, and both are capable of flummoxing even the best hitters. But softball's revelatory moment comes when rise balls and drop balls start rising and falling away, respectively, from a young, wide-eyed batter.

"A curveball and a screwball, they stay on the same plane, so you can get away with a little more," Lappin said. "You might actually still barrel up some good curveballs and good screwballs, but once you see a pitch that moves 8 inches above your barrel or drops off the table 8 inches below your barrel, that's something else.

"I think the same thing can be said about both [the rise and drop]. The difference in the rise ball is it looks so big coming in, so you get more aggressiveness on that pitch. You get more people trying to hit that pitch. ... The pitches have the same swing-and-miss ratio when the hitter decides to swing, but you're going to bate more people with that up pitch that looks like a beach ball up in your hitting zone."

It's important, then, to note that although a rise ball can be thrown with great velocity, it isn't solely about speed. It is not a fastball. The owner of the sport's signature rise ball at the moment and the recent recipient of a million-dollar contract in National Pro Fastpitch, Abbott can throw a rise ball well in excess of 70 mph, which adds another layer of complications. Tincher's rise reached the upper 60s on a good day. Wilkinson baffled Florida with a rise in the mid-to-low 60s. So did Michigan's Megan Betsa, the national leader in strikeout rate this season by a wide margin, in a super regional against Missouri. Betsa's rise often wouldn't break the highway speed limits in Oklahoma.

A true rise ball -- as opposed to a pitch merely thrown high, hard and flat -- isn't about blowing the ball by hitters. It's about the path the ball travels and the spin imparted to make it appear to jump on its journey. The rises that stand out are those that sail away so violently that the catcher has to come out of her crouch to snag the ball before it soars away, but a rise can start and finish on a number of less dramatic paths.

"It's one of her best pitches, and she can throw it on different planes, which is why it can be so effective for her," Michigan pitching coach Jennifer Brundage said of Betsa. "We can use it to either get strikeouts or popups, that's our goal. Our philosophy is it's a lot easier to catch a popup than to field a ground ball. You have to field it cleanly, throw them out, and the receiver has to receive it. With a popup, you just have to catch it.

"But it's high-risk, high-reward because flat rise balls tend to leave the park."

It is that other characteristic that makes the rise ball so visually compelling. It is like a wild animal that a well-trained ace can handle like a pet most of the time -- but only most of the time. At some point, it will bite back.

Mess up some part of the process, and a pitch designed to fool batters into thinking it is too fat to take actually becomes too fat to take.

Now the pitching coach at her alma mater, which narrowly missed this season's tournament, Tincher was glued to the television the past couple weeks. At one point, she called her husband into the room and made him watch Alabama pitcher Alexis Osorio; she needed someone else to appreciate a rise ball at its best. Alabama's ace was brilliant in both the regional and super regional rounds. She allowed just 15 hits and no earned runs in 29 1/3 innings and struck out 49 batters. On hand for the regional as Texas State's pitching coach, Osterman left impressed too.

Osorio made it look easy against Samford, Cal and Washington in those games. Much of her sophomore season was more arduous.

As a freshman who pitched Alabama to the World Series, Osorio gave up just 13 home runs and 23 extra-base hits in 192 innings. Those totals stand at 20 home runs and 33 extra-base hits in 177 1/3 innings this season, with much of that damage done early in conference play. It didn't help that injuries limited her opportunity to train and hone in preseason, but for the first time in her career, she confronted the adversity that comes when hitters begin laying off -- or worse still, clubbing -- the pitch that has always worked for you.

"I know last year I was really successful with it, only because I was a freshman and nobody really knew what I threw," Osorio said. "But I know that this year everybody has a lot of film on me, everybody knows what my best pitch is. I really love the challenge that now I have to work the rise ball lower into the zone to get them to bite at it still and being able to make it move still. I think I had to make an adjustment with trusting myself and knowing my rise ball can get people to swing and miss -- as long as it's moving."

There has never been a more perilous era in which to tempt home run hitters, and there has rarely been a more perilous week to do so.

Before 2007, there had never been a season of NCAA softball in which teams averaged four or more runs per game. They did so in six of the eight seasons immediately preceding this one and set records in each of the past two. Within that climate, all eight teams in the World Series this season rank among the top 41 in the nation in slugging percentage. Six teams are ranked in the top 21.

Softball hitters have never mashed like they do now. Those in Oklahoma City mash more than most. But perhaps counterintuitively for a pitch that invites disaster, that might only enhance the value of a really good rise ball.

"In some ways, it's higher risk because people are swinging really good sticks," Brundage said. "They've got the bat technology, we've got a whole bunch of video, and swings are better now than they ever have been. You don't even have to get all of the ball to hit it out of the park. The flip side of that is hitters can also be a little bit more aggressive and more free-swinging because there is so much emphasis on hitting bombs. So they can become vulnerable to the rise ball if they're going to just free swing because then you can get them to chase a lot out of the zone."

Nothing in softball is more fun to watch than the confrontation that ensues.

Although she will be forever associated with a drop ball best described as fiendish, Osterman was a rise ball pitcher almost before she was anything else. She still says the rise is her favorite spin, if also the most difficult pitch to master. She practiced it for nine months before daring to throw it in a game. Osterman turned every at-bat into a competition. One pitch didn't change that, but even she experienced the rise ball as something distinct, something different.

Here it is, batter. Try to keep your hands quiet enough and your back shoulder firm enough to stay on top of it.

"It's high-risk, high-reward because flat rise balls tend to leave the park." Jennifer Brundage

"I think there was an element of enjoying it until the first time I threw it really well, and it did leave the yard," Osterman said. "Then I was like 'OK, this isn't fun anymore.' ...

"I learned the drop ball [before going to the University of Texas] to counteract the possibility of the rise ball leaving the yard. But it is fun because, yeah, a lot of people think they can still put a ball up in the zone out of the park. Being able to get it over their bat or get them chasing or just when they swing at one way over their head, it's fun being the victor in that battle."

No pitcher can live on the rise ball alone. Tincher estimated that she threw the pitch 75 percent of the time in her career, a decidedly atypical concentration, but even on that night against Team USA, she needed to throw her changeup and drop ball as well as she ever had to keep the best hitters in the world off-balance. She had to plant the seed of doubt in their minds.

She also had to banish the doubt from her own mind. She had to trust a pitch that demands allegiance even as it leaves the pitcher bare.

"Definitely later in the game, you could tell they were swinging for the fences," Tincher said. "So it was just kind of [about] giving everything, knowing it was going to be all or nothing, trying to use that adrenaline because I don't think any pitcher can say that when Crystl Bustos steps into the box you're not terrified.

"It's trying to use it in a good way and channeling that adrenaline into throwing it better than I ever had."

Those moments are why this stadium matters so much. Those are the moments Wilkinson, Betsa, Osorio and the rest now chase.

The rise ball isn't the only pitch you will see this week in Oklahoma City. It might not be the pitch that wins. But there is a good chance it is the pitch you will remember.