Good pitching almost always beats good hitting. And that boded well for the Indian River varsity softball team as they headed into their first playoff game of the season, against Concord on May 25.
Head Coach Mark Browne has had the luxury of stacking his lineup with a plethora of great hitters. But great pitchers are hard to come by, and Indian River may have one in the making.
Junior pitcher Kathryn Riley (13-5) was indeed set take the mound for the Lady Indians against Concord on Wednesday, but Indian River fans might notice a few changes to her pitching this time around.
Riley has added a two-seam fastball to an already impressive arsenal of pitches. The two-seam fastball is a moving fastball, unlike the four-seamer, which takes a flatter line.
“All I have to do is throw at the target (the catcher’s mitt) and the ball will go up or down,” said Riley.
Considering the distance from pitcher to home plate and the velocity at which these ladies throw, it’s stunning how much — or rather, how little — time a hitter has to decipher, locate and hit one of Riley’s moving fastballs.
And if Concord hitters think they can key on that two-seam fastball, they will find they are sadly mistaken, because Riley tests every one of her pitches each game. She will serve up a mixed buffet of changeup, curveball, drop-ball, drop-curve, rise-ball, screwball and the two fastballs in her attempt to move on in the playoffs.
“All of my pitches don’t always work, so I have to test them out to see what is working that day,” explained Riley. “It also depends on where they are on the plate. If they are on the plate then a screwball will jam them up, because it moves in on the hands. But if they are off the plate, then I have to use something that will drop off.”
“Kathryn’s best pitches are her fastball, changeup and drop-curve,” said Browne. “We’d like her to simplify her rotation of pitches and stick with the two or three that are working that day.”
In addition to adding a moving fastball, the IR coaching staff had suggested that changing her pitching motion would maximize Riley’s velocity. Her motion has accordingly been trimmed from a long, winding hurl to a compact explosion.
Changing a pitching motion at the end of the season is a tough task, especially when the previous motion was so serviceable, but Riley had been hit hard by Sussex Tech and Caravel at the end of the season, so it seems to be a necessary change.
“Sometimes you have to experience games like that to wake you up or drive you to become better. Hopefully, she’ll use it positively,” said Browne.
Great players do learn from mistakes and get better. And Riley seems to have learned that lesson.
“Right now, I’m looking to the next game and working to keep an even keel,” said Riley. With that mindset in place, all that is left for Riley to do is to go out and play up to her capabilities.
“Kathryn has been working so hard, and when she pushes herself she is a whole new person. It’s crunch time now and she knows that we need her to be successful,” said senior catcher Ravin Robinson.
As a pitcher, Riley also benefits from practicing against one of the best hitting lineups in the state, especially going into the playoffs. Browne’s practices are more like games, which is helpful because it mentally prepares his athletes.
Riley had a chance at May 23 practice to pitch to her teammates in a game-like situation.
Browne was on the third base line, sending signs to hitters and base runners, and outfielders were shouting words of encouragement to their pitcher, in hopes of inspiring an out.
Riley hit the zones and mixed her pitches well, to strike out the Lady Indians’ top three hitters. Senior third baseman Sara Powell, junior center fielder Shauna Jacobs and Robinson were the first ones up in practice and all three had a hard time putting the barrel on the ball.
Jacobs got rocked by three straight pitches — a blistering fastball up in the zone, followed by a dropping curveball that fell right in her wheelhouse and finally another hard fastball.
Browne even tinkers with the hitting scenarios to give his players looks at tough situations. Sometimes a hitter will be put in a 0-2 count to give them some practice at hitting tough with two strikes, or two outs for that matter.
And that type of practice seems to have helped Riley develop as a pitcher.“It really helps to practice like this because I get to know what pitches work with two strikes or two outs,” said Riley. “Also it’s pretty fun competing against your teammates. Nobody wants to be the one who strikes out, and I don’t want to give up any hits.”
With Concord coming to town, Riley was set to face a tough and competitive team, like the many others that she has faced all season long. But this one was the most important.
The Lady Indians haven’t always scored a ton of runs, but they have found a way to win. They defeated top-ranked Maryland teams (Calvert and Glen Burnie) by low scores, and that could be the case against Concord.
The secret to their success against those teams was that they had no idea what they were getting into. Calvert’s star pitcher, Megan Elliott, blistered the Lady Indians with rocket-hard pitching. But Browne’s squad negated the heat and played a little small ball for the 2-0 victory. The Lady Indians planned to mimic their mental approach for the Calvert game again for Concord in an attempt to stay loose.
“We don’t know anything about Concord, just like we didn’t know anything about Calvert. And that’s the way we like it. We’re just going to go out there and play ball,” said Robinson.
Whether they score one run or 10, the Lady Indians will have their best pitcher on the mound and Riley will serve as the catalyst for the Lady Indians’ play — for better or worse.
“Kathryn had a late start getting an opportunity to pitch but it’s in her lot now,” said Browne.