April 5, 2014 in Washington Voices

Steve Christilaw: Fast-pitch softball or baseball, pitching an art

Steve Christilaw steve.christilaw@gmail.com

The pitcher fired a high fastball past arguably the best hitter in all of major league baseball. And then giggled.

Not something you’d recommend any pitcher doing, especially when facing Albert Pujols, but then again this wasn’t just any pitcher and the fact that the pitch made Pujols lurch backward made more than just the pitcher guffaw.

On a 2004 afternoon, Jennie Finch made more than a few major league hitters squirm in the batter’s box – and later that same year the fast-pitch softball pitcher did the same to a long list of opposing batters as she led the United States to an Olympic Gold Medal at the Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

Pujols never made contact with any of the five pitches Finch fired past him that day, and when he left the batter’s box looking bewildered, he stopped and tipped his cap to the 6-foot-1 blonde with a ponytail and a windmill throwing motion.

The showdown was part of the pregame festivities for the annual Pepsi All-Star Softball Game in Cathedral City, Calif.

Later, after the American League fell behind 9-1 in the fifth inning, they called on Finch – officially the team’s pitching coach – to pitch. As she walked to the mound, the team’s infielders began to relax. Third baseman Hank Blalock took the opportunity to get a drink. Aaron Boone took off his glove, stretched out on the ground and used second base as a pillow.

Finch struck out Mike Piazza on three pitches. Brian Giles missed so badly on strike three that he spun completely around.

She was far from the first to have that kind of success.

Eddie “The King” Feigner spent more than a half-century baffling hitters – throwing from the pitching circle, from second base and even the outfield.

In a charity softball game in 1967, Feigner struck out Hall of Fame hitters Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew – in a row.

Fast-pitch softball is a sport dominated by pitching, and on a good day a top-level pitcher is flat-out unhittable. Baseball is somewhat less dominated by pitching, but a top-level pitcher can be just as dominant on a good day.

So, which is more difficult?

“I’ve done both – I played college baseball and I played in some high-level modified fast-pitch leagues back when Spokane had them,” University softball coach Jon Schuh said. “You have to work at both. There’s a reason a pitcher like Jennie Finch has so much success throwing to major leaguers – they aren’t used to seeing a ball come at them from that angle and it really throws them off.”

Baseball pitchers, throwing off a raised mound, deliver the ball with an overhand motion – some more than others. The ball comes to the plate at high velocity and with some degree of sink. Exceptional fastballs will sink less, but most pitchers use the ball’s sinking nature to their advantage. Sinkers, sliders, split-finger fastballs and curveballs all attempt to harness a baseball’s relationship to gravity.

Fast-pitch softball is different. With a windmill delivery, the ball is released low. With enough velocity, a good fastball up in the strike zone will actually rise as it crosses the plate – a phenomenon you never see with a baseball.

“I have no doubt that, if major league hitters worked at it, they would be just as good at hitting a softball,” Schuh said. “But that’s true for hitting either one.”

Bottom line?

The simple physics of hitting reveals just how difficult the task of hitting a ball with a bat is: The task at hand is to take a cylinder, be it made from wood, metal or some composite, swing it in a modified arc with the intention of making contact with a sphere traveling at speeds that would earn you a ticket on the highway for going too fast.

And what do pitching coaches in both sports tell you to do?

Hit it square.

If you can do it three times out of 10, they make you an All-Star.

Correspondent Steve Christilaw writes about high school sports. His column appears in the Valley Voice. Contact him at steve.christilaw@ gmail.com.

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