With the season now nine days away, hokiesports.com continues its preview of the 2013 Virginia Tech softball team in a three-part series. Today, we look at the pitchers and catchers the coaching staff has at its disposal.
“Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls - it’s more democratic.” - Crash Davis
The Hokie pitching staff has the luxury of not having to worry about striking every batter out this year as the pitchers will rely heavily on one of the best defenses in the country behind them. With four quality arms in the circle, led by all-region honoree Jasmin Harrell, Tech has the recipe for a successful staff. The recipe calls for a senior leader, some depth, some youthfulness, a little bit of big-game experience and a combination of different types of pitchers. Blend them together and toss in a couple of talented catchers and you have the formula that gives Tech a chance to win every time it steps on the field.
The success of the Hokies starts in the circle and Harrell is at the head of the line. The light came on last year as the Irvine, Calif., native, posted a 31-16 record with a 1.97 ERA for the year and a career-high 227 strikeouts, earning second-team all-region honors. The senior is coming off minor postseason knee surgery, but threw well in the fall and will look to pick up where she left off last season. Sophomore Bailey Liddle came to Tech thinking she might have a chance to pitch a few innings. Last year, she did more than that, emerging as Tech’s No. 2 hurler. She started 18 games, went 8-4 and tossed 91.0 innings. She’ll be counted on even more this year after having a tremendous off-season and fall season.
“Both of them got better as the year went along last year and both of them improved tremendously in the fall,” said Barb Sherwood, Tech’s pitching coach. “Jazz, since she’s been here, has gotten better and better every year and I expect her to remain our number one. She’s got her head right and she’s looked as good as she ever has, coming off that surgery, so I look for her to again throw a bulk of our innings, for sure. Mentally, she’s in a whole different bracket. Playing in all those big games last years did wonders for her confidence and I expect her to be at a different level this year. Bailey is significantly better than the day she stepped on campus. She’s improved physically, mechanically and mentally. There’s a big difference between thinking you might throw a few innings and being counted on for major contributions and that’s where Bailey was last year. But she continues to get better and better and I’m excited about this 1-2 punch.”
A pair of freshmen in Kelly Heinz and Maggie Tyler will also be counted on heavily as both come to Tech with impressive high school credentials. Heinz was the state player of the year as a junior before missing her senior season in the circle after having arm surgery. Tyler, at 6-1, is an imposing figure who flew under the recruiting radar, but had an incredible fall for the Hokies.
“Maggie was better than I hoped she would be in the fall,” Sherwood said. “She’s gotten stronger and had a ridiculously good fall. She’s coachable and was probably our most significant pitcher this fall and we have high hopes for her. Kelly came in off of surgery so she wasn’t as strong in the fall as she was her junior year of high school, but she continues to get stronger physically. As her strength increases, it’s likely that her innings will increase. We’re going to set the freshmen up. We’re not going to throw them to the wolves, but we’re going to need them to contribute this year.”
Lauren Darden, Beth Isaacs and Lauren Boitnott complete the staff, although Isaacs and Boitnott aren’t completely healthy right now, so Sherwood doesn’t expect to use them in a game at this point. Darden helps out by throwing live in practice and will also double as an effective pinch runner in games.
Behind the plate, Betty Rose is back for her second season of starting behind the dish. Coaches are hoping her bat comes back around to the form of her sophomore season when she hit .316 with 12 home runs, but regardless, they like the way she handles the pitching staff.
“Betty is a calming source for the pitchers,” Sherwood said. “She makes them laugh when they’re too serious. She’s a very good receiver of the pitches and not much gets past her. I can’t say enough about comfort level when it comes to her. I feel like she put too much pressure on herself at the plate last year. There’s a fine line between pushing too hard and just playing the game, but if she just goes out and plays the game, things will come her way.”
Rose didn’t get a lot of rest behind the plate last year, starting 60 of Tech’s 63 games there, and Sherwood hopes to have Kelsey Mericka spell her this year while keeping Rose’s bat in the lineup.
“Kelsey’s got a strong arm and a quick release,” Sherwood said. “She also blocks everything back there; there aren’t going to be many balls getting by her. There’s a trust factor with the pitchers knowing they can throw a drop ball with a runner on third because she can help them out. She just needs some innings. She was awesome at third base last year, but we need to get her some innings behind the plate to try and rest Betty.”
Courtney Liddle started here as a freshman before moving to first base and can fill in if needed. Freshman Alex Barnes is expected to redshirt and sophomore Logan Spaw, who was Tech’s main designated player last season, could also play here in a pinch.
“I think this team as a whole is ridiculous when you talk about the lineup top to bottom, the pitching staff and the depth,” Sherwood said. “We’ll have kids on the bench who could start elsewhere, but they’re here waiting for their shots. I can’t say enough about having options, be it in the circle, at the plate or in the field. Offensively, if someone gets in a funk, we have plenty of options to try and shake it up and get things going again. Pitching-wise, I think you saw where we didn’t have a lot of options last year after one and two and we got ourselves in some trouble. It was pretty glaring in the ACC Championship and at Regionals. Now that we have options and they can’t just prepare for one pitcher, we’re thinking this could be a really fun season.”
Part 1: The Defense - Monday, Jan. 28
Part 3: The Offense - Friday, Feb. 1
For updates on Virginia Tech softball, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@VT_Softball).