Monica Abbott, Cat Osterman Rivalry Sparks National Pro Fastpitch
Sometimes the future catches you by surprise. And sometimes it looms on the horizon.
Two of the best who ever picked up a softball, Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman, didn't catch anyone by surprise.
That included the man who would one day coach both pitchers on teams that represented the United States in the 2006 ISF World Championship and 2008 Olympics, in addition to the 2004 Olympics, in Osterman's case. Before any of that, Mike Candrea was one of countless college coaches who took a long look at what was on softball's horizon. High schoolers weren't supposed to spin the ball like Osterman spun it. They weren't supposed to throw as hard as Abbott, either.
"We knew looking at them, even when they were in travel ball, that they were going to have the opportunity to be pretty special," Candrea said. "A lot of times kids can look like that in travel ball but never really pan out, but both of them have continued to get better and better and better."
Indeed, as the National Pro Fastpitch playoffs begin this week in Hoover, Alabama, Osterman, 31, and Abbott, 29, have never been better, which makes the potential for a head-to-head clash all the more appealing. Without Jennie Finch, who retired in 2010, and Jessica Mendoza, who announced her retirement earlier this year, Abbott and Osterman are clearly the two biggest draws in the sport.
The southpaws are Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. They are great on their own and better still for the league because they aren't on their own.
All of which also makes it too easy for a future without their rivalry to sneak up on us. We may never see another quite like it.
The top two playoff seeds, respectively, Osterman's USSSA Pride and Abbott's Chicago Bandits are favorites to meet in the championship series for a fifth consecutive year. Neither team lacks for star power. In Tammy Williams and Megan Wiggins, the Bandits have arguably the best shortstop and center fielder in the league. Yet the Pride have Madison Shipman and Caitlin Lowe in the same positions, so there might be an argument when it comes to those accolades. So it goes around the diamond, asset for asset, for teams separated by just three games in the standings.
But the hold both teams have on the league begins with Abbott and Osterman.
In her seventh NPF season, Abbott is 10-5 with a 1.03 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 88 2/3 innings, dominant numbers but not dominant enough to get a foot in the door this summer for consideration as the league's top pitcher. A year after she reversed course on a decision to retire, Osterman is in the midst of what is almost certainly the best individual campaign in NPF history. Also in her seventh NPF season, she is 16-0 with a 0.56 ERA and 160 strikeouts in 100 innings for a team that is 17-15 in its other games.
Abbott and Osterman combined for 302 strikeouts in the regular season. The Akron Racers and Pennsylvania Rebellion, with 12 pitchers between them, combined for 338.
The two aces play a different game than everyone else. They have for quite some time.
Osterman's genius is in the subtle changes that allow her to appear much the same pitcher who rose to stardom at the University of Texas and with Team USA. Her gaudy strikeout totals have never come from overpowering hitters, but from the kind of spin and movement that would make David Beckham envious. She might throw a few more curveballs now when batters are looking for drops, she might attack the strike zone a little more than she once did, but what you see now is what you saw a decade ago. Or more precisely, what you don't see now is what you didn't see then.
Williams, who ranks among the league's top run producers this season, recalled thinking after a recent game the she had a good night against Osterman. She still struck out twice and went hitless, but she fouled a few off.
"You think you're going to swing and hit it," Williams said of the experience. "And then it misses your bat by a foot."
Osterman now plans to play one more season before turning her full attention to a coaching career that recently saw her move to Texas State. With her goes the rivalry.
Knowing that any game is going to be a close one when we are in the circle together, it definitely makes you, mentally, have to approach the game a little bit different.Cat Osterman on facing off against Bandits ace Monica Abbott
"She's an artist of the game," Abbott said. "I think that she does it so well. She's honed her skills and anytime you see a fellow pitcher that just is an artist and is painting and doing their work, you definitely tip your cap to them."
Reinvention is more outwardly a theme for Abbott. An introvert by nature, she once wasn't sure that she wanted to leave the comfort of home to pitch professionally in Japan. She will soon return to complete her sixth season in that country and said she wouldn't mind six more, having fallen head over heels for Japanese culture and its passion for her sport. She is comfortable now as one of the faces of the sport in either country. Time passed and she grew. Likewise, while she still throws hard, maybe harder than ever, she mastered a changeup and added a drop ball in recent seasons.
What she still loves about the game, she said, is that she never knows what a given day will bring, and that's how she steers her career, forever reinventing what others would happily coast on.
"She's constantly still trying to improve herself, which is awesome because that's what I think any pitcher should do," Osterman said. "Over the course of my career, if you watch, it looks like I throw the same three pitches, but I'm always trying to tinker with them a little bit to try to do something different. So more than anything, she hasn't rested on what got her there. She's continued to try and improve her game, which is a message we try to keep pounding into younger pitchers."
We often exaggerate the importance of the time in which we live and the significance of those who define the era. Maybe this is that. Maybe there is another girl right now in middle school in Texas or California -- or given the game's continued growth, in North Carolina or Iowa -- with a rise ball that sizzles or a drop ball that disappears. Maybe the next great ace is even closer than that. Maybe it's Keilani Ricketts, the former University of Oklahoma star who has been one of Osterman's understudies the past two summers.
But maybe not. No one in the NBA averages 50 points a game like Wilt Chamberlain once did for a season. No one in Major League Baseball wins 30 games and pitches close to 400 innings, as people like Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson did. Sometimes things don't go in cycles. Sometimes they just change. Maybe softball changed.
Abbott and Osterman didn't start this. From Finch to Lisa Fernandez to Joan Joyce and Bertha Tickey, softball's spotlight has always been brightest for pitchers. At least until now.
"If you look at travel ball right now," Candrea said, "there definitely are not a lot of great pitchers out there that are dominating like these kids did during their careers, both in travel ball and in college."
He sees a scarcity of pitching and sees offensive numbers that, if not quite as out of control as they were when his Arizona team set an NCAA home run record in 2009 and then saw that mark broken a season later by Hawaii, define the terms of engagement. It's why he suggested it might be time to at least discuss ideas like moving the pitching rubber a foot closer to the plate (it was shifted from 40 to 43 feet in 1988), lengthening the base paths from 60 to 65 feet or moving back outfield fences to put pitchers and hitters back on equal footing.
"I don't know whether we have that perfect balance," Candrea said. "And I don't know if we'll ever find it. But I know it has gone through my mind, [that] maybe it's time for us to make some changes."
For her part, Osterman's eyebrows raise when she sees even slap hitters sending balls over fences with bats that are more potent than ever before. But perhaps not surprising, her focus is on those in the circle. She noted that where once aces had one or two pitches that were synonymous with their success -- a drop ball for her and Alicia Hollowell, a rise ball for Abbott or Finch, a changeup for Amanda Freed -- more and more pitchers want to learn to throw everything, even if it comes at the expense of throwing any one pitch well.
"I think the mentality of how pitchers work has changed a little bit," Osterman said. "Too many pitching coaches are just trying to teach girls everything instead of getting them to master and be really, really good at one or two pitches. That kind of opens it up for offense. When you have five average pitches versus two really good pitches and then maybe two average pitches, it's a different ballgame."
The viewpoints are not mutually exclusive. Faced with a world in which hot bats, improved strength and conditioning and other factors limit the effectiveness of any given pitch, perhaps young pitchers compound the problem by trying to accumulate as many as possible. Add to the mix pitchers throwing too many innings at too young an age and burning out mentally or physically, plus the lack of Olympic funding truncating careers, and it's easier to explain why sport-defining aces like Abbott and Osterman appear to be an endangered species.
"You look around the country and the one thing that sticks out to me, especially at the college level, is that the hitters have almost surpassed the pitchers," Candrea said. "If I look at what I see at the college level, there are some special pitchers out there. If they will have the opportunity to continue to play this game for any length of time we may see another one [like Abbott or Osterman]. But truthfully those two still kind of stick out. When Jennie [Finch] and Lisa Fernandez retired, the two that are still going at it are Monica and Cat. I think right now they're kind of the face of pitching at the highest level.
"It seems like both of them are still very passionate about what they're doing and still are very competitive. And I think the fans are getting an opportunity to see two of the very best to play the game."
They may get a chance to see them go head to head this week. Partly because the stakes grow almost too high to be worth the energy expended during the course of a regular-season grind, those encounters have grown increasingly rare. Only once this season did Osterman and Abbott pitch in the same game, and that was only when both entered in relief during an extra-inning game on Aug. 3.
"It makes everyone have to be a little bit more in tune to the game, just because you know that one swing of the bat can make or break the game and one pitch can make or break the game," Osterman said of the encounters. "For me personally, I had to find a way to continually -- not change myself but just change my approach or keep hitters who had seen me for four or five years on their toes and not allow them to adjust too much to me.
"Knowing that any game is going to be a close one when we are in the circle together, it definitely makes you, mentally, have to approach the game a little bit different."
But it isn't just different. It is unlike anything else the sport has to offer now and may have to offer in the future. And every inning of it should be savored.
Unless, of course, you happen to be in the lineup. Then you just have to survive it.
"You're going to dig in, but it's not going to go your way a lot," Williams said. "You're just hoping it does one more time than it does for them."