Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
Is it possible to have a softball pitching rotation too stacked with talent?
Lakewood Ranch High is about to discover the answer.
The Mustangs, ranked second in the United States by multiple outlets, have four pitchers committed to Division I schools — juniors Claire Davidson (Auburn), Brooklyn Lucero (North Carolina State) and Payton Kinney (Connecticut), and senior Kayla Howald (Campbell).
Most schools are lucky if they get one of those every four years. It gives the team plenty of options, but also could cause problems if not everyone is playing with a team-first mindset.
Thus far, it has not been an issue. The Mustangs are 16-0 as of April 12 and their pitchers hold a collective earned run average of 0.54. Three pitchers — Davidson, Lucero and Howald — have yet to allow an earned run. The rotation’s all-around success has allowed coach T.J. Goelz to spread out each pitcher’s innings. Davidson leads the foursome with 34 innings over six appearances but the other three each have between 21-24.
If they were phased by this development, they do not act like it. After Lakewood Ranch’s 5-0 win against Sarasota High on April 9 — Davidson pitched a complete-game shutout with 14 strikeouts — Lucero said watching performances like that from her teammates motivates her to match or beat them, and the rest of the rotation feels similarly.
“It helps us gel as a team,” Lucero said. “We cheer each other and we are genuinely happy for each other."
There is also no lack of internal competition. Davidson said the team will practice throwing “money pitches,” like in a three-balls, two-strikes count, and track who finds the most success. Those results are for Mustangs eyes only, she said.
The pitching staff has been better than Goelz anticipated, he said, and he thought it would be great. Goelz said Lucero (67 mph), Davidson (66) and Kinney (64) have all hit their career-high velocities this season, and Howald, who was uncommitted prior to the summer 2018 travel ball season, has developed a “ridiculous change-up” to pair with her rise ball, taking her game to an elite level.
The formula is working fine during the regular season, but what about the playoffs, which start April 30?
High school playoff softball, even more than baseball, often comes down to which team’s pitcher makes the fewest mistakes. Will the Mustangs continue to spread out innings when the postseason comes?
"We are going to keep letting things play out," Goelz said. "But I told the girls ahead of time that we are going to give people innings and opportunities to get work, but the postseason is the postseason. If somebody has a hot hand and they are dominating, we may ride them a little bit. Are they going to pitch all seven innings? Probably not. That is the thing about it. We can go to our next pitcher because it is '1A,' '1B,' '1C,' '1D.' It is not like there is a drop-off or anything."
The Mustangs know about the importance of pitching. In the two previous seasons Lakewood Ranch was ranked highly but fell to a premiere pitcher in the playoffs. The Mustangs lost 1-0 — in 11 innings — to Plant City High and Ashley Blessin (Marshall) in 2017, then 1-0 to Oakleaf High and Madi Davis (UCF) in 2018. This Mustangs team is the most talented I have seen, but one misstep and they could have nothing to show for it.
Despite the looming pressure, the pitchers still find time to have fun, as has been the Mustangs’ tradition. They shout “Opa!” whenever something good happens during a game. (“It does not even have to be that good,” Davidson said.) Players with black gloves call themselves “BGG,” or the “black glove gang,” for reasons they cannot explain other than for silliness.
But when the postseason arrives, expect the Mustangs to get serious, and be a serious contender for the state title. They have the pitching for it.