Five lessons from World Cup of Softball
It was only the first step of the softball summer for the United States, but it came without a stumble.
Capped by a 5-2 win against Canada in Sunday's championship game, Team USA won all seven of its games in the World Cup of Softball in Irvine, California, to win the invitational for the seventh time in its nine-year history.
A year after it lost to Japan twice in the event, including in the final, the United States went unbeaten in a World Cup for the first time since 2009 when the field included Japan (the Americans went 6-0 in a Japan-less field in 2012). And while that might not seem like all that long ago in the real world, it is an eternity in softball, which saw Team USA essentially reboot and start from scratch after winning the 2010 world championship, the last hurrah for the generation that played when the sport was part of the Olympic program.
So as Team USA builds toward August's ISF World Championship in the Netherlands, what did we see in Irvine?
1. Sara Nevins is the ace ... against Canada
It is tempting to believe the World Cup offered a glimpse of the kind of ace the Americans lacked a summer ago. Nevins looked the part in Irvine as she began her second summer with Team USA. She finished the week with an 0.53 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 13⅓ innings, work that included a strong performance in the final game. The other three pitchers, not including a short relief stint from Valerie Arioto, totaled 21 strikeouts in more than twice as many innings during the tournament. In addition to removing the possibility of defensive miscue, strikeouts make the short game less effective, a big plus in international softball, and Nevins is more of a strikeout pitcher than Jolene Henderson, Jessica Moore or Jaclyn Traina.
All of that said, the World Cup didn't prove Team USA is looking for an ace to trump four of a kind.
Nevins started both games the United States played against Canada. Team USA's lone left-handed pitcher, she faced a Canadian lineup that featured left-handed speed with Joey Lye, Victoria Hayward, Caitlin Lever and Larissa Franklin and the left-handed power of Jennifer Yee, one of the toughest outs in the world at the moment.
There is every reason to think Nevins is the ace when Canada is the opponent and every reason to think that's good news for the United States based on how she pitched. But unless coach Ken Eriksen changes course, it may just be further proof that he intends to go with the best matchup in a given situation rather than rely on a traditional ace.
2. Valerie Arioto is the face of the program
A decade ago, we would just be settling into the prime of Valerie Arioto's career as the pre-eminent power hitter in international softball. These days, while the oldest player on the American roster at 25 years old might be around for some time to come, it's best to appreciate her while we can.
What Alex Morgan is to U.S. Soccer and Maya Moore is to USA Basketball, Arioto is to USA Softball, a rare talent who needed little time to settle in on the international stage and has the personality and demeanor to match the role.
In six games in the middle of the American order in the World Cup, Arioto hit five home runs, walked four times and struck out just once. And that production came when it mattered, with a home run in a pool-play win against Canada and another home run, two walks and two runs scored in a pool-play win against Japan.
Since the start of last summer, excluding exhibition games, she is hitting .403 with 10 home runs, 35 RBIs and 34 walks in 28 games. If you're talking about the best hitters in the world at the moment, the conversation starts with her and Megan Wiggins of the NPF's Chicago Bandits.
3. Shortstop remains a position to watch
While every player saw the field in Irvine, it is clear that Eriksen has at least a working model of a regular lineup.
Incumbents Arioto, Raven Chavanne and Michelle Moultrie aren't budging at first base, third base and right field, respectively. Rookie Kelsey Stewart made a case for keeping the depth chart flexible at second base with a strong performance in the field and on the bases, but incumbent Lauren Gibson will be in the lineup in every game that matters, whether as the second baseman or designated player. Taylor Hoagland staked a claim to time in left field, rookie Haylie McCleney appears set in center and Jessica Plaza, another rookie, looked up to the task of handling the time-share arrangement with Amanda Chidester necessary behind the plate in condensed tournament schedules.
All of which leaves one position unaccounted for.
While it remains unbeaten on the field, Team USA suffered a loss earlier this year when former University of Tennessee All-America shortstop Madison Shipman opted to sign with National Pro Fastpitch. Shipman is tearing up the pro league at the plate and is so good defensively that even USSSA Pride teammate and former national team star Natasha Watley relocated to left field. Meanwhile, Team USA has completely turned over the position, replacing Taylor Thom and Kourtney Salvarolo with Sam Fischer and Kellie Fox.
Fischer showed her power two summers ago with the national team and began the World Cup batting cleanup, but she never got the bat going this past week (a small sample size, it's worth pointing out). With the range afforded by a tall, athletic frame and power at the plate that both lend themselves to comparisons with a young Shipman, Fox saw most of her action in the World Cup as a steady defensive replacement, minus an error late in the title game, and drove in a couple of runs with small ball execution. But the rising senior at the University of Arizona is unproven at the international level.
Shortstop was not a strong point in Irvine, which underscored Shipman's absence. Both Fischer and Fox have the potential to make the position an asset by the end of summer. It just isn't clear yet which one is more likely to do so.
4. Knoxville connection paying dividends
Shipman's absence notwithstanding, Tennessee was well represented in the World Cup. Former college teammates with the Lady Vols, Chavanne and Gibson remain a productive partnership in their second summer together with the national team.
The two combined to go 22-for-37 at the plate and drive in 14 runs in the World Cup. That included 13 hits from Chavanne, more than twice as many as any teammate other than Gibson. Team USA's lineup depends on speed at the top and bottom and power in the middle, and the two former Lady Vols fit the model. A talented slapper, Chavanne's lone hit that went for extra bases was an inside-the-park home run. A lock for any list of the most powerful pound-for-pound hitters, Gibson finished the tournament with four doubles and a home run.
More than their specific production this past week, Chavanne and Gibson also represent the continuity that is beginning to be an asset for Team USA. Along with Arioto and Moultrie, Gibson has been part of the national team for all four summers since the reboot in 2011. That even the veterans are young was evident when Gibson failed to slide into second base in a game against Mexico and was pulled from the lineup. That it's a team with the character and experience to learn from its mistakes rather than sink into a funk came when one of its leaders returned later the same day and hit a double and a home run against Chinese Taipei.
5. Japan and Canada trade roles
The World Cup counts, and has the trophy to prove it, but it is also in some ways the preseason of international softball. And like those sort of games in any sport, it's unwise to extrapolate too much from the performances of teams still trying out new things and rounding into shape. It's similarly unwise to draw too many conclusions about a team competing without one of the best pitchers in the world, as Japan was without Yukiko Ueno, who is recovering from an injury.
But all caveats aside, four losses in a week, including two in two days against Chinese Taipei, raise questions about how ready Japan is to defend the world championship it won two summers ago in Canada. The defending champions were never going to show all their cards in July and played for the world championship in 2010 after losing four games in the World Cup earlier that summer, but they need a stronger showing in this week's Canadian Open.
An opening run-rule loss against Canada came after lengthy travel. The run-rule loss against the United States was much more competitive than the score indicated. The losses against Chinese Taipei came when a title was already out of reach. But at some point, valid excuses are trumped by the length of the list of losses requiring an excuse.
For at least a week, the team that looked most ready to keep the world championship away from the United States was Canada. Just as the Americans are beginning to benefit from a core that has been together for a few years, Canadians like former Syracuse ace Jenna Caira are benefiting from the experience of being competitive with the Americans for most of that span. There didn't appear to be much of a fear factor when Canada twice rallied late in games against Team USA. An extra bat like that belonging to Jennifer Gilbert, who is playing for the Akron Racers in NPF but will join Team Canada later this summer, might have completed one of those comebacks.