USA vs. USA? Laying down the ground rules for a big summer of international softball

Former Michigan star Amanda Chidester hit seven home runs to help lead Team USA to the gold medal at the 2016 world championships. EPA/Orlando Barria

This summer offers Team USA an opportunity to take its first step toward the 2020 Olympics. The summer months also offer softball fans who have grown more accustomed to watching the Women's College World Series an opportunity to get reacquainted with the kind of softball that will be played in two years in Tokyo.

The international game on display this week in the USA Softball International Cup, a warm-up event for August's WBSC World Championship, diverges from the college variety in a number of small ways. You will hear national anthems instead of fight songs. You may see teams take the field in shorts instead of pants (it's up to them, as long as everyone on the team wears the same thing). And there will be an orange base -- the right side of a double bag at first base (the orange side is for runners trying to beat out a hit).

But for fans who haven't seen much of Team USA since the 2008 Olympics, the last Games in which the sport was played, here are answers to a few of the more pressing questions that may arise.

Why is Team USA playing Team USA?

Don't worry, the inclusion of "Red" and "Blue" teams under the USA banner isn't a comment on the political times in which we live. No one need choose sides. But it is possible that the United States will end up playing itself for the championship in Irvine, California -- although Canada, Japan and several other contenders will have something to say about that.

Both USA teams have plenty of star power -- right down to the coaching staffs that include Oklahoma's Patty Gasso making her debut as head coach of one of the USA teams. Both will also get plenty of face time, each appearing twice on ESPN or ESPN2 during pool play. But the teams were not created as equals. The USA Blue team that Gasso coaches, and which recently played a three-game series in Japan against that country, is the secondary team. The USA Red team is the group that will travel to Japan for the WBSC World Championship next month.

That doesn't mean the individual designations are written in stone. For the six players on the USA Blue roster who are still active collegians, including University of Washington glove wizard Sis Bates, the opportunity could be a stepping stone. And for players with international experience like Ally Carda, Amanda Chidester or Kelly Kretschman, it's another audition.

USA Red coach Ken Eriksen pointed out that with a similar two-team setup in 2002, the supposed secondary team beat the primary team to win the Canada Cup, a warm-up event similar to the International Cup. And that not only propelled several players, including Kretschman, onto the Olympic roster, but served as a wake-up call for that team.

Why aren't they calling illegal pitches?

If you're a college softball fan who finally got a grip on illegal pitches, those mysterious moments when umpires seem to randomly erase plays, forget everything you learned.

There are still rules that govern how pitchers must deliver the ball in international softball, of course. They can't, for example, pull a Happy Gilmore and take a running start from second base. There are still illegal pitches. But for the viewer, the most important thing to know is that you won't spend nearly as much time trying to figure out what just happened. That's because the most common issue in college softball, seeing a pitcher airborne when her back foot loses contact with the ground as she delivers the pitch, isn't illegal in international play.

Here is how the WBSC explains that portion of the pitching rules.

"It is legal to drag, leap or hop and then land and throw, as long as the original push starts from the [pitching] plate."

The degree to which that benefits pitchers is debatable, which is why the rules differ so much. And from a 20-second pitch clock to a softball that many pitchers feel is more difficult to spin, especially for a rise ball, the international game has its own pitching pitfalls. But thankfully for fans, slow-motion replays of the millimeters separating foot from dirt aren't on the viewing menu.

"The college rules are ridiculous," said Eriksen, who doubles as the longtime coach at the University of South Florida. "I hope that the college rules committee takes a look at the sanity that goes on in the international game. ... I think you're going to see more of a natural flow of the game in international ball. It's more of 'Here it is, pitcher's got it, go get them, go challenge them' instead of the petty stuff that goes on in college."

Why does the outfield look different?

Many will suggest that international softball is a step up in competition from anything players previously experienced. But at least for outfielders, there is nothing subjective about that suggestion. They really do go from the little pond to the big pond in the international game.

Where college softball dimensions are sometimes as short as 190 feet down the left- and right-field lines, international rules call for uniformity. All international fields have the same dimensions and those dimensions are the same all the way around: 220 feet down the lines and to center.

"The fences at 220 from left to right create a larger area for the outfielders to cover," said Karen Johns, a former head coach at both the NCAA and international level with USA Softball and a former USA player. "Speed and arm strength are skills valued more than in college and club softball."

This is why the USA Red roster includes three of the best defensive center fielders in recent college memory: Haylie McCleney, Kirsti Merritt and Michelle Moultrie, in addition to Janie Reed and versatile infielder-outfielder Kelsey Stewart, two players with ample range. It is not a coincidence that in addition to pitching, one of USA Softball's strongest positional legacies is center fielders like Laura Berg and Caitlin Lowe. It isn't a luxury internationally; it's a necessity.

Why are there runners on base in extra innings?

This one isn't completely foreign to college softball fans, but it's rarely seen these days in the upper echelon of Division I -- at least outside of early-season tournaments that can't afford to fall behind schedule. Like penalty shootouts in soccer or starting from the 25-yard line in college football overtime, the tiebreaker is softball's compromise to the clock. And like its peers, it often isn't a satisfying way to settle matters. If a game is tied after seven innings, a runner is placed on second base at the start of the inning.

In reality, teams rarely get a runner in scoring position with no outs (for example, it happened just twice in the recent three-game series between Japan and the USA Blue team). Under the tiebreaker rules, seemingly every half-inning becomes a test of sacrifice bunting and small ball.

In the 2012 world championship, Team USA both won a semifinal against Japan and lost the rematch in the final (Japan recovering in the elimination bracket) by way of the tiebreaker.

International softball's progressive mercy rule -- a game is over if a team leads by 15 runs after three innings, 10 runs after four innings or seven runs after five innings -- makes some sense given scheduling and the disparity between many countries. The tiebreaker format, especially in the medal round, can feel more gimmicky.