Last Saturday, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins had to make a tough decision. With the Big Ten lead on the line, the Wolverines – with Nicole Motycka on the mound – had fallen down three runs to Minnesota in the third inning, and the Gophers were pushing for more. Hutchins pulled Motycka out of the game and put in ace Marissa Young, even though it meant that she would pitch at least 17 innings in three days.
“When we brought (Young) in, I told her we can win this game,” Hutchins said.
The move worked. After a couple of walks, Young shut down the Gophers, and the Wolverines rallied in the fifth inning to win 5-3. While Young may have not looked her best on Sunday, losing 2-0 to Wisconsin, her heroics helped to earn her fourth Big Ten Pitcher of the Week Award this season.
However, the question still remains: How much can her arm take?
“The good thing about underhand pitching is that it’s a more natural motion than overhand baseball pitching,” said Michigan assistant coach Jennifer Brundage, who works with the pitchers and plays on the U.S. Olympic Team. “Marissa grew up playing travel ball, where she’d throw three or four games in a day.”
Young – as well as other college pitchers – may have pitched a great deal of innings in club and high school softball, but throwing against the Iowa Hawkeyes is a little different than going up against the San Jose Strikers Under-18 team.
As the staff ace, Young has appeared in 28 of Michigan’s 40 games, starting in 20 and going the distance in 17. But she is just fifth in the Big Ten in innings pitched. The conference leader, Wisconsin’s Andrea Kirchberg, has complied 30.2 more innings than Young and has started 25 of the Badgers’ 38 games.
But Kirchberg’s numbers pale in comparison to NCAA records. Back on May 11, 1991, Kelly Brookhart of Creighton and Janet Womack of Utah went head to head in a 31-inning duel with both pitchers on the mound for the whole game.
“These pitchers can throw and throw and throw,” Hutchins said.
While Young will not have to throw those kind of innings, how much time she spends on the mound will depend on the play of Motycka. Filling in for All-Big Ten second-team pitcher Marie Barda, Motycka has had a tough role coming in right away but has pitched well. At times, though, she has gone through some growing pains, and she has shown a tendency to be hard on herself in tough situations.
“She’s learned from some good times, and she’s learned from some bad times,” Brundage said. “It’s kind of what you’d expect from freshman. She’s got a lot thrown on her all at once, and she’s doing the best she can to cope with it. Actually, I think she’s doing a great job.”
Motycka has started as many games as Young, but Young has had to come into relieve her in eight of those starts. Against Minnesota, Motycka had some control problems and allowed two leadoff walks to cross the plate.
Because Motycka, unlike Young, is not a strikeout pitcher, getting ahead in the count is imperative for her.
“The games where she is most successful are when she gets ahead,” Brundage said. “She throws that first strike, and then she can throw junk. That’s something that she has worked on and will continue to work on.”
On Sunday, Motycka showed her potential by throwing her second shutout of the season in a crucial victory over the Badgers, walking just three and striking out seven. The difference for Motycka was her composure on the mound. Instead of having a business like approach like she often does in her poor outings, Motycka “lightened up” and was more confident on the mound.
If Motycka pitches like she did against Wisconsin, the Wolverines should be primed and ready for a run to the Women’s College World Series. If not, Young could be pitching like her days in the youth club leagues.
“She’ll throw as much as we have to use her.” Hutchins said. “Every game is really important in the Big Ten, and we’re trying to win.”