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Thursday, March 27, 2008
Tincher ends USA Softball's streak, proves she can beat the best

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

International Olympic Committee politics may prevent Angela Tincher from ever pitching on the biggest stage in sports. But on Wednesday night in Oklahoma City, the Virginia Tech senior lived up to every ideal of what athletic competition is supposedly about.

Tincher
Angela Tincher didn't allow a hit against the best lineup in the world.

Tincher didn't just pitch the Hokies to a 1-0 win in an exhibition against the United States Olympic softball team; she did it without allowing a hit against the planet's best lineup.

A day after becoming the first college pitcher to beat the Olympic team in more than a decade, ending its 185-game winning streak on pre-Olympic tours, there had been plenty of time for Tincher to sit and reflect. The former came easily, courtesy of the flight from Oklahoma City and a three-hour bus ride from the Charlotte airport to the campus in Blacksburg. The latter proved as elusive as her pitchers had been the night before.

"It hasn't really hit me yet," Tincher said by phone from the bus, which was to be greeted by an escort of Virginia Tech Police, Blacksburg Rescue Squad and the Blacksburg Fire Department when it neared campus. "I think it kind of seems like a dream at this point."

Dream or not, if a college pitcher was going to snap the winning streak during the Olympic team's current five-month "Bound for Beijing" tour, Tincher was a prime candidate -- in part because of what she had done as the unlikeliest of candidates four years prior. At that time, pitching at 43 feet for the first time in her career and still a few weeks shy of showing up for freshman orientation, Tincher struck out slugger Stacey Nuveman on three pitches and then struck out Tairia Mims-Flowers in an exhibition against the team that went on to win gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Both Nuveman and Flowers were in coach Mike Candrea's batting order again Wednesday night, as they will be when the team goes for gold in the Olympics.

And again, both players struck out against Tincher.

Jessica Mendoza, considered by many to be the best hitter in the world today, was on the Olympic team that played the exhibition game four years ago and batted fourth Wednesday night. She also got to know Tincher when the pitcher took part in the Olympic tryout process last summer and came away impressed with both her personality and pitching.

"I went up to her after the game and shook her hand, and I don't think I've ever done that to a pitcher before -- especially a pitcher that's beaten us," Mendoza said. "I talked to her a little bit at the tryouts. … I thought she was just a nice, genuine person who just really, like anybody, wants a chance to be on an Olympic team. And the unfortunate part is that there are so many great players out there and great pitchers out there. And for her to be able to face the team she didn't make and play the way she did, that had to really feel good for her.

"She pitched incredible. I would say we have one of the best offenses I've ever seen on any team. And the fact that she completely shut us down, I don't think that's ever happened before. All you can do is just shake her hand."

At the college level, the presence of pitchers like Arizona State's Katie Burkhart, UCLA's Anjelica Selden and Arizona's Taryne Mowatt makes it difficult to say definitively that Tincher is the best in the game. It's easier to state there are none better than the right-hander who was lightly recruited coming out of high school.

Angela Tincher
After watching DePaul get hammered by USA Softball, the Hokies shocked the national team.

Even without the benefit of Wednesday's exhibition numbers, Tincher is 15-4 with a 0.46 ERA and 282 strikeouts in 138.1 innings this season. With one last opportunity to ride her arm to the Women's College World Series, the Hokies scheduled a rigorous nonconference slate of games. And their ace more than lived up to the billing. Tincher dueled Mowatt for 12 innings in a loss at Arizona, struck out 15 in six innings in a 1-0 loss against UCLA and one-hit Northwestern in a 1-0 shutout win. All three opponents have been ranked as high as No. 1 or No. 2 at various times this season.

But even that track record left her with few options beyond laughter when confronted with an opposing batting order that fans flock to see and pitchers scramble to avoid.

"When they read out their lineup from one to nine, it's the most ridiculous lineup in the world," Tincher said. "We were joking one inning -- I was like, '8-9-1 coming up … that really doesn't mean anything today.'"

Tincher said she felt loose warming up before the game, but it didn't help that she could see what the Olympic team was doing to DePaul in the first game of the doubleheader. When it was over, a Blue Demons team that reached the Women's College World Series last season and remains solidly in the rankings this season had dropped a 23-0 decision.

That's how Candrea's team has built up an absurdly oversized 1,475-24 scoring edge during its 185-game winning streak on the pre-Olympic tour.

And in Tincher's mind, familiarity wasn't necessarily a good thing.

"It wasn't the first time [facing them] and I wasn't quite as nervous," Tincher allowed. "But I don't think they're hitters that you can really go at and know -- they can pretty much hit anything. So it's almost like you don't want them to see you too much. So I don't know who has the advantage in that situation."

Tincher retired Caitlin Lowe, Natasha Watley and Mendoza in order in the bottom of the first and got a big lift when Hokies catcher Kelsey Hoffman led off the top of the next inning with a double against Jennie Finch. Pinch runner Anna Zitt took her place at second, advanced to third on an illegal pitch and eventually came around to score on Caroline Stolle's RBI single.

Hoffman has been Tincher's catcher all four seasons and calls the pitches behind the plate -- not an entirely common responsibility in college softball -- making it all the more appropriate that she sparked the only run support Tincher needed on the night.

Certainly nobody knows better than Hoffman how little help her pitcher needs.

"I can usually tell in warm ups, and if I can't tell in warm ups I can tell by that first batter of the first inning," Hoffman said. "As soon as we were warming up, I knew she was on her game. And the first inning, when we went 1-2-3, I knew we were going to have a good night."

When it was over, Tincher had walked one and struck out 10 without a single United States player reaching base via a hit. With the game on the line in the final frame, she coaxed three consecutive outs from Natasha Watley, Mendoza and Crystal Bustos, quite possibly the three last choices any pitcher would make if picking a part of the order to face.

But on this night, in this game, it couldn't have ended any other way.

"It was like a game of a lifetime," Tincher said. "And when I saw the ball go up and knew that [shortstop Jess Hodge] had it, it was just like, 'Did this really just happen?' It just kind of hit me in the face right there."

The 2012 Olympics in London aren't an option for Tincher, but after proving both the talent and poise to beat the best, a return trip to Oklahoma City in June for what would be Virginia Tech's first College World Series appearance might suffice.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.