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USF pitching rotation finds power in numbers
What's the difference between poker and softball? If Ken Eriksen really does have four aces, he doesn't have to hide his joy from anybody.
By GREG AUMAN
Published May 10, 2007
TAMPA - What's the difference between poker and softball? If Ken Eriksen really does have four aces, he doesn't have to hide his joy from anybody.
"It's an incredible luxury, " USF's softball coach said of his pitching depth, good for the fourth-best team ERA 1.28 in the country. "When a starting pitcher doesn't have a good day, you just go to the next one. Nobody has to go seven innings. I just say give me your best five. It's been phenomenal."
The Bulls (43-21, 15-5 Big East) open play in the conference tournament today in South Bend, Ind., and they do so armed with four of the league's six lowest ERAs. Sophomore Cristi Ecks leads the nation at 0.60, with fellow right-handers Bree Spence (1.22), Courtney Mosch (1.51) and Kristen Gordon (1.52) not far behind.
Unlike baseball, a softball team can ride one or two dominant pitchers all season, so the Bulls are the exception, a rare combination of talent and chemistry. It's one thing to have four aces; it's another to get them all to embrace their roles and coexist.
"They all checked their egos at the door, " said Eriksen, who has a freshman (Gordon) leading his staff in wins for the third year in a row. "I've had teams with a couple of prima donnas in the circle, but that hasn't been the case at all."
How can less be more? Spence, a junior from Countryside, pitched 243 innings two years ago, then 200 last season as she and Ecks combined for 84 percent of USF's innings pitched. This spring, she has pitched only 92, but her ERA dropped for the second straight year.
"It's less innings than I'm used to, but it allows me to give all I've got when I'm out there, " said Spence, recovering from offseason surgery on her non-throwing shoulder. "We all complement each other so well, and that helps keep teams off-balance."
The Bulls are used to sharing the glory, even within a single game. It's rare that an opposing hitter gets a third shot at the same pitcher. USF had just three complete games in Big East play, and sure, the pitchers say they could go longer, but do they want to?
"There are some teams that can use one pitcher every game. But by the end of the season, ask them how they're feeling, " said Ecks, who finishes as well as she starts, ranking second nationally with seven saves.
That said, she's hardly a conventional closer, as USF leads the nation with 18 saves, with three pitchers with at least four.
Of the four aces, Mosch, a junior who transferred last season from Syracuse, is the only one who also bats; she's second on the team with 27 RBIs. Gordon leads the team with 15 wins and 185 strikeouts, the best per-inning mark in the league.
"I knew the depth of the pitching staff when I came here, " Gordon said. "We all have selfless personalities and help each other out, and just the experience of learning what I'm capable of doing has been really exciting."
The Bulls, who also have the conference's second-best batting average at .286, hope that four fresh arms can trump top-seeded DePaul's one-two punch of senior Tracie Adix and freshman Becca Heteniak, who each threw two-hitters for 2-0 victories against the Bulls in Chicago last month.
USF has won 10 straight since, allowing one run six times and rebounding well after starting league play 3-3.
"Things are coming together for us at the right time, " Ecks said. "It's a load off of me to know I can pitch four solid innings and know I have teammates who will finish the game from there."
Circle of trust
A rotation of four right-handed pitchers (who all double as relievers) is a big reason for USF's 43-21 record heading into the Big East tournament. All four have started at least 12 games and have ERAs that rank among the Big East's six lowest.