Weary of facing dominant pitchers, last week Washington softball coach Heather Tarr got her wish — a break from the Pac-10.
The Huskies, whose offense struggled in Pac-10 play (going scoreless in nine of their 15 conference losses), responded favorably. In NCAA regional games in Provo, Utah, they rolled to three shutout victories, collecting 17 runs and 31 hits.
Their reward? Facing the Cy Young of the college game — three-time All-America left-hander Cat Osterman of Texas.
Washington (35-23), the tournament's No. 14 seed, travels to Austin, Texas, to take on third-seeded Texas (52-7) in a best-of-three Super Regional starting Friday. All three games will be nationally televised: 4:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN; 1 p.m. Saturday on ESPN; and if necessary, 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2. KKNW (1150 AM) will also carry the games.
The winner advances to the eight-team Women's College World Series, where UW has appeared seven times in 13 seasons, most recently in 2004. Washington has reached the NCAA title game twice, in 1996 and '99, losing both times.
To get there again UW will have to get past the 6-foot-2 Osterman, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist who has put up dizzying statistics:
• 2,198 career strikeouts, 425 more than the No. 2 pitcher on the all-time NCAA list.
NCAA softball super regional
At Austin, Texas
Best of three series, Washington (35-23) vs. No. 3 Texas (52-7).
Game 1: Friday, 4:30 p.m., (ESPN).
Game 2: Saturday, 1 p.m., (ESPN).
Game 3: Saturday, 6 p.m.* (ESPN2).
* if necessary. Note: all games on KKNW (1150 AM)
• Only 14 runs allowed in 42 games this season (an NCAA-leading earned-run average of 0.39).
• An average of 15.6 strikeouts per seven innings in 2006, almost two better than the runner-up.
• A 2006 record of 35-2, which includes a 3-0 win (a one-hitter) over UW on March 16 in which Osterman struck out 19 and walked one.
While recording three regional victories last weekend, she fanned 52 of the 69 batters she faced, including Utah's first 14 hitters in the regional championship game. In three games she walked just two and gave up four hits.
Add these factors into the mix: This is Osterman's senior season; she'll be pitching for the final time on her home diamond (1,252-seat McCombs Field), where the games were rapid sellouts; and she was the subject of a USA Today sports-cover story last week.
"It's going to be a challenge," said Tarr, whose team left Wednesday for Austin. "We've got to believe that she's beatable. That's the starting point. It just depends how well our hitters see the ball, how they make her come to them."
Invincible? Maybe not. Osterman stumbled May 11 in the Big 12 tournament, giving up five earned runs to Texas A&M in a 5-0 loss.
"They made her throw strikes," Tarr said, adding that Osterman relies on movement to baffle hitters. "Ordinarily she doesn't throw strikes, but her pitches look good, so hitters swing through them or umpires call them.
"She's got a drop ball that sinks like a slider, or a Barry Zito curveball. It cuts down and away to lefties, down and in on righties, dropping from 12 o'clock to 6. That pitch is unhittable, and you do your best to foul it off. We've just got to see the ball, make her throw strikes, take care of all the small details."
The UW bats of Dominique Lastrapes, Ashley Charters and Aimee Minor heated up in regional play, something Tarr said will need to continue in Texas while UW's own ace, freshman Danielle Lawrie (23-14), tries to match Osterman. Lawrie pitched 17 scoreless innings in three regional games, yielding just four hits and striking out 29.
Lawrie is still building on her UW single-season strikeout record, now at 377. Her strikeout average (10.6 per seven innings) ranks 13th nationally.
"I think Danielle's whole perspective of her role on this team changed halfway through the season," Tarr said. "She kind of knew her role as a freshman at the start, showing respect to the leaders of the team. When we needed her to be prepared to pitch every single day, she couldn't say, 'Oh, I'm just a freshman.' We needed her to take the ball. She did, and she's running with it."