Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tomorrow will finally be the day that Texas Tech University softball fans get to see their Red Raiders take on the University of Texas (ranked No. 1 or 2 in the nation in recent weeks) and its star pitcher, 6-foot-2 lefty Cat Osterman. The teams will play a double-header at Tech's Rocky Johnson Field (near the Health Sciences Center, to the south), with the games starting at 4:00 and 6:00.

Lubbock's recent experience with temperatures in the 90s -- or as I call it, "Summer in mid-April" -- has fortunately ended. The weather forecast for Thursday's game is that it will be pleasantly cool (pleasant, in my opinion, at least). The (expected) morning rain hopefully will dissipate by gametime, with the temperature reaching 66 degrees.

Unfortunately, the Raiders are struggling at the moment, having been swept yesterday by last-place Oklahoma State in Lubbock; prior to that, Texas Tech was swept by Kansas in Lawrence over the weekend.

With the possible exception of her freshman year in 2002, this will be Osterman's first appearance pitching at Texas Tech (assuming that she pitches in at least one of the games). Texas comes to Lubbock in even-numbered years, and Cat redshirted in 2004 to concentrate on the Olympics (at which she was a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. squad).

Last Saturday at Oklahoma, in a game televised by ESPN, Osterman pitched her fifth no-hitter of the season and 20th of her career.

Among Osterman's other accomplishments, she has struck out more batters than anyone in NCAA softball history.

This current season, opponents are batting .078 against Osterman, 48 hits in 612 official at-bats (stats page).

Typically, no-hitters are rare events. However, on my "Hot Hand" website, where I use examples of sports streakiness to illustrate concepts of probability for the statistics classes I teach at Texas Tech, I've posted what may be a surprising finding. My analysis shows that, considering how rarely Osterman gives up hits in general and the seven-innning length of softball games (as opposed to nine), she would actually be expected to throw a fair number of no-hitters!

What will also strike many observers as surprising is that Osterman will actually be trying to avenge a loss to Texas Tech a year ago in Game 1 of their double-header, albeit one under highly unusual circumstances. A regulation softball game is 7 innings. After 7, it was 0-0, with Cat not allowing Tech a hit.

Once a game reaches the 10th inning, to try to hasten its conclusion, each half-inning starts with a runner automatically on second base (known as the ITB or International Tie Breaker). The rule is described in the NCAA rules manual (see page 63 in your PDF reader) and also on this discussion board.

Texas Tech scored as the runner advanced to third on an out, then came home on an error. A Raider single -- Tech's first and only hit of the game -- made it 2-0, and then UT failed to score.

Osterman had 24 strike-outs for the game. So, yes, Tech won the game, but the Red Raiders did virtually no damage offensively.

In Game 2 of last year's twin-bill, the Longhorns' Meagan Denny, then a freshman, no-hit the Red Raiders, 3-0, meaning the Texas Tech got one hit in the two games combined.

I would likewise expect Texas to start Osterman in one of the games tomorrow and Denny in the other.

As exemplified by last year's game in which the Red Raiders beat the Longhorns, the major impediment for Texas in reaching the top of the college softball universe was offensive production. In their two Women's College World Series losses last year (which eliminated them), the Longhorns were shut out each time.

Accordingly, UT brought a new hitting coach to Austin, Corrie Hill (known as "Chill," as I learned from the aforementioned ESPN broadcast).

Sure enough, the Longhorns appear to have greatly improved their offensive output, as evidenced by the following comparison (shown in an ESPN graphic during the Texas at Oklahoma game, 4/15/06).

-------------------------2005----------2006 (thus far)--

Batting Avg.--------.233-----------.273------------

Runs/Game-----------2.81-----------4.26---------

Home Runs------------15-------------39-------------

Slugging Pct.---------.303-----------.448------------

If one were to nit-pick, it could be argued that Texas has not yet faced the bulk of the tough pitching it's going to encounter this season, namely in the NCAA play-offs and WCWS, thus overstating the Longhorns' 2006 hitting prowess. While three of the four 2006 statistics above could conceivably go down at a later point, the home run count, being a cumulative total, cannot go down.