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Monday, May 29, 2006

Everything is now in place for softball's Women's College World Series, which begins Thursday in Oklahoma City. The official NCAA bracket is available here. For each game, the starting time and television information is provided. It looks to me like several of the teams have the potential to do a lot of damage. When a team as talented as Tennessee is the eighth seed, you know the field is going to be competitive!

Of the many storylines that will unfold over the next week and a half, perhaps the most compelling one is that this year is Texas pitcher Cat Osterman's last chance for her and her teammates to win the WCWS.

Already an Olympic gold medalist (here and here), and also the all-time NCAA softball strike-out leader, Osterman is softball's mega-celebrity, attracting enormous media coverage such as this splashy feature in USA Today. From Lawrence to Lubbock, her road appearances in the Big 12 have brought out some of the biggest softball crowds seen in these towns.

Looking back on Cat's two previous appearances in the WCWS -- in 2003 as a sophomore and 2005 as a junior -- one sees a mixture of brilliance and frustration (her freshman year of 2002, the Longhorns didn't make the World Series, and she redshirted in 2004 in preparation for the Olympics; click here for Texas's yearly game-by-game logs). What follows is a detailed look back at Cat and her UT teams' fortunes at their two previous WCWS appearances.

2003 WCWS

Texas met UCLA in the final of their part of the bracket (which functioned as a national semi-final). Texas (with no World Series losses) just needed a single win to advance to the championship round, whereas UCLA (having lost its opening game to Cal) needed to beat the Longhorns twice.

UCLA beat Texas 3-0 in the teams' first meeting, a game I don't remember watching.

Instead, the rematch later that night is my first recollection of ever hearing about or seeing Cat Osterman. Texas took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, and Osterman was making this lead stand up, striking out Bruin after Bruin. Many of those strike-outs (or at least it seemed) involved UCLA batters, having two strikes against them, swinging and missing at pitches in the dirt.

As a UCLA alumnus (undergraduate), I kept asking myself with great irritation, “Why do they keep swinging at those pitches?” Then I figured it out -- the pitches must not look like they're going into the dirt, to the hitters! (That's the best I could come up with, anyway.)

Improbably, however, UCLA staged a rally in the final inning. Quoting from the UCLA article on the game:

All the drama came together in the bottom of the seventh inning. Toria Auelua led off for the Bruins, but became the 13th strikeout victim of Texas ace Cat Osterman. Senior Monique Mejia, whose error had created the lone Texas run, was next to the plate, and responded with a hit through the left side of the infield, her first hit of the day against Osterman.

From there, Andrea Duran was able to put down a critical bunt, advancing Mejia to second base. Another senior, Natasha Watley, then stepped in and put an 0-1 pitch up the middle of the Texas infield, just to the right of Osterman and just out of diving range to the left of Longhorn shortstop Chez Sievers. The hit scored Mejia from second base, and Watley advanced to second base on the throw.

With two outs and a tie game freshman right fielder Caitlin Benyi, who had struck out in each of her previous three plate appearances in the game,put the first pitch she saw into right field for a hit, scoring Watley from second base and ending the game with a 2-1 UCLA victory.

Fast forward to the 2005 WCWS

This time, Texas suffered a second-round loss to Michigan, my graduate-school alma mater. As shown in the following excerpts from the UM article, the Wolverines got to Osterman incrementally. Osterman also had to deal with virtually no offensive support.

Osterman looked to be cruising through three, striking out eight of the first 10 Wolverines she faced.

Michigan finally broke through in the fourth inning when centerfielder Alessandra Giampaolo... hit a ball off of an outstretched Osterman's glove, beating out the throw from Texas second baseman Chez Sievers to lead off the inning. Jessica Merchant... followed with a single before Samantha Findlay... laced an outside fastball off the left-centerfield wall, driving in Giampaolo and Merchant to put the Wolverines up 2-0.

Ritter continued to bear down on the Longhorns. The Wolverine hurler quietly racked up 12 strikeouts in a one-hit shutout. Ritter did not allow a hit past the first batter, and thanks to Becky Marx... throwing out the runner on a steal attempt[,] Ritter faced the minimum number of batters possible.

Merchant teamed up with Nicole Motycka … in the sixth inning to extend Michigan's lead to 3-0. With Merchant on second after a single and stolen base, Motycka drove a pitch into leftfield. As Merchant rounded third, Texas leftfielder Tina Boutelle fired to the plate. Merchant slid around the sweeping tag to score the run and chase Osterman from the Texas circle.

With the loss, Texas faced elimination for the rest of bracket play (i.e., leading up to the two-out-of-three championship series, where both teams started off with clean slates).

In the Longhorns’ next game, against Arizona, Osterman was positively heroic. She pitched all 11 innings of a Texas 1-0 win (note, again, her lack of run support). Also, she pitched herself out of some serious jams in the later innings.

Texas next faced UCLA, which had not lost yet, in the final part of their bracket (in a reverse of 2003, this time the Longhorns needed to beat the Bruins twice). In what many considered a very controversial decision, Longhorn Coach Connie Clark opted not to start Osterman. As summarized in the UCLA article:

UCLA jumped on Texas starter Meagan Denny in the bottom of the first inning, as Andrea Duran drew a lead-off walk. Tara Henry then grounded into a fielder[‘]s choice with the out at second base. After Caitlin Benyi fouled out and Emily Zaplatosch drew a two-out walk, Jodie Legaspi roped a single down the left field line, scoring Henry from second base before an errant throw from left fielder Tina Boutelle finished the play with Zaplatosch on third base.

Kristen Dedmon then hit an infield ground ball but a bad throw to first base by Texas shortstop Desiree Williams scored Zaplatosch, and put Legaspi on third and Dedmon on second base for Krista Colburn, who singled to right to score Legaspi for UCLA's third run of the inning.

After Colburn's RBI single, the Longhorns brought in All-America pitcher Cat Osterman, who retired all 16 Bruin batters she faced in the game.

As an aside, I believe Denny gets a bad rap for that game. If not for the aforementioned Texas infield error, the Longhorns would have gotten out of the inning having given up just one run.

After starting Denny in this year's opener of the Big 12 conference tournament, which did not go well, Coach Clark made the following postgame remarks:

I think we will come back stronger. We talked about it being gut-check time right now. You must give Oklahoma State credit. They came out and had to win back-to-back games today and they competed very well against us. In terms of pitching Meagan Denny tonight, you have to understand that she is as good as a lot of No. 1 pitchers on many staffs. She is capable of getting the game ball every time out. We ideally wanted Meagan and Cat to go every other game here; we are thinking about the big picture, the NCAAs, and you are not going to get through that tournament with one arm. We also don't want to wear out one pitcher. I was disappointed that I had to take Denny out – I thought, besides the home run pitch, that she was doing a great job out there. The problem was in us not scoring early enough. (my emphasis added)

Also, as Texas fans are painfully aware, in the Horns' two losses in the '05 World Series, they scored no runs. As I wrote about earlier this season, Texas brought in a new hitting coach this year, which has seemed to produce spectacular improvement (one notable exception is the aforementioned Big 12 tournament, where the Longhorns were dismissed in two straight).

So, as the 2006 Women's College World Series approaches, I'm sure softball fans are asking themselves questions such as:

Will Coach Clark deviate from her previously stated position, and use Osterman throughout the World Series?

Will the Longhorn bats remain hot, taking some of the pressure off Osterman to throw scoreless innings virtually all tournament?

If Texas's hitting does not help out, can Osterman consistently throw shutouts?

We shall see.