Softball pitchers learn from struggles

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | APRIL 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Kayla Massey stood in the pitching circle and took a deep breath.

The Iowa softball team had a 5-3 lead in the top of the seventh inning on April 9. Massey was one out away from earning a victory at Pearl Field.

The problem was that Michigan State catcher Brett Williams stood at the plate. In the third inning, Williams sent a two-run home run flying over the fence, her 10th of the season. Now, Williams represented the game’s go-ahead run; Michigan State had runners on second and third.

Massey wound up and threw the same pitch that Williams drilled earlier. This time, she popped it up harmlessly, and Hawkeye catcher Liz Watkins made a difficult catch against the backstop to end the game and give Massey her 10th win of the season.

“The one she hit out, she got a hold of it. Hats off to her,” Massey said. “You just have to take a step back next time at bat. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.”

When two-consecutive batters reached base in the seventh, Iowa head coach Marla Looper said she considered making a pitching change to close the game out. But she stuck with Massey, and the first-year coach said getting Williams out for the win could be big for the freshman pitcher’s confidence.

Looper made a similar choice the next day.

Sophomore pitcher Chelsea Lyon struggled with her pitch location for much of Sunday’s series finale against the Spartans. She gave up four runs in the game’s first three innings.

But the toughest part of the afternoon for Lyon hadn’t come yet.

In the fifth, second basemen Ali Grant hit a two-run home run to cut the Hawkeye lead to 1. Two hitters later, third basemen Jayme O’Bryant hit a solo homer to tie the game.

Massey began warming up in the Hawkeye bullpen.

Iowa scored twice to take a 9-7 lead to the top of the seventh. Williams struck again, hitting a solo homer to cut the lead to 1.

For the second day in a row, Looper decided to allow a struggling pitcher to finish out the game.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to grow through it,” she said. “I don’t want it to cost us a game, but those are some valuable lessons they can learn. Don’t keep looking in the dugout [and saying] ‘Coach, come bail me out.’ No, you’re in there, and this is what we train to do.”

Lyon shook off the three previous home runs and recorded three outs to end the game. It wasn’t pretty — she allowed 12 hits, four walks, and 8 earned runs — but the Broken Arrow, Okla., native picked up the victory.

“You have to have a short memory as a pitcher,” Lyon said. “At the D-1 level, there are going to be home runs hit, and I had more than usual today. But you’re not going to have your best stuff every day, and you’ve got to deal with what you got.”

The Hawkeyes’ weekend sweep of Michigan State provided some tough lessons for the team’s pitchers, but Looper allowed each to finish what she started and earn a victory.

“The biggest thing is they’ve got to trust themselves,” she said. “I was ready to put Kayla in today, and I was ready to put Chelsea in yesterday. But I was ready for them to go the distance as well and gain some confidence.”

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