Saturday, March 5, 2011
Female pitchers make it a special day
By Mark Saxon
VAN NUYS, Calif. -- The moment wasn't bigger than Marti Sementelli, but the catcher certainly was.
The two of them stood on the pale dirt of the Birmingham High pitching mound Saturday morning in crisp home white uniforms. Their team was about to face San Marcos of Santa Barbara in what was believed to be the first U.S. high school baseball game in which two girl pitchers started.
The catcher, Luke Jupp, was a head and a neck taller than the 5-foot-2 right-hander, whose black ponytail trailed down her back almost all the way to her blue No. 1. They stared out at left-center field, where an American flag hung limp on a hot, sunny day in the San Fernando Valley. A recorded version of the national anthem crackled from the speakers.
It looked and sounded like the start of any other high school baseball game in suburban America. You had to look closely to see that it wasn't just two short right-handers on the mound. By the time it was over, it felt as if it was something more meaningful.
Sementelli pitched a masterful complete game, the best of her short high school career. Birmingham won 6-1, but this wasn't about a nonleague high school baseball game. It was about gender and competition and what's possible.
Sementelli already was recognized as one of the best female pitchers in the world. She earned the reputation through her work for USA Baseball, which -- contrary to common knowledge -- has a women's team and won bronze medals in both Japan and Venezuela in world tournaments.
Saturday she helped brighten the horizons of girls who want to play baseball and are routinely herded into softball, which bears only a passing resemblance.
By the end of the day, of course, her physical stature hadn't budged one inch. She was dwarfed by a small group of reporters that surrounded her for a postgame interview.
Columnists from both the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News were here, as well as ESPNLosAngeles.com. A local TV station sent a reporter and a camera. A scholar of women's baseball was in the crowd, as was a woman trying to start a professional women's baseball league.
A lot of people were watching to see what would happen on a landmark day, far more than the couple hundred who sat scattered throughout the bleachers in the shade. Both young pitchers could feel the moment.
"I couldn't stop shaking," Sementelli said.
You can usually tell when a pitcher is nervous because they miss high in the strike zone, the residue of trying to throw harder than their capabilities. Sementelli walked the first three San Marcos batters she faced, mostly missing above the catcher's target, but Jupp picked one off base and Sementellli steadied herself to get out of the inning with a double play.
After that, she was commanding in the way that finesse pitchers are. It was quiet. You can tell she has practiced her delivery tens of thousands of times. Her mom, Rosa, remembers her throwing pitches to her dad, Gary, in the hallway of a cruise ship while on vacation.
It's a fluid, compact delivery. It requires exquisite balance. From it, she can throw a nasty three-quarters breaking ball, two different palm balls, a changeup and a couple of different fastball looks, including a cutter. The catcher doesn't have enough fingers, but when you're as competitive as Sementelli is and you throw in the mid-70s, you get creative.
After watching Sementelli and San Marcos' Ghazaleh Sailors on Saturday, you couldn't help wonder what was possible for women in baseball. Why shouldn't they have their own league or, for that matter, why couldn't they one day break down the gender barrier in Major League Baseball, just as Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers did for the race barrier 64 years ago?
Neither Sementelli nor Sailors has ever thrown a baseball as hard as 80 mph -- this, according to their dads -- but there's more to pitching than velocity. In fact, raw speed might be the No. 3 criterion. There is deception, there is movement and there is, of course, location. Sementelli put on a clinic in harnessing them all to her advantage.
There were 1,012 girls playing baseball on high school teams in the United States in 2008, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. California had the most girls playing baseball with 385, but none of them faced each other as opposing pitchers until Saturday. Might we see it at higher and higher levels in the coming years?
"Baseball is a sport that you don't have to be overpowering to play," said author and professor Jenny Ring, whose daughter plays on the Cal club team. "We've got David Eckstein as well as Barry Bonds."
The next step is college baseball -- Sailors is going to play at the University of Maine Presque Isle next season and Sementelli is leaning toward Montreat in North Carolina. Then come the minor leagues and, eventually, why not the majors? It might take a woman with a nasty knuckleball or a filthy curveball. The role might be as a situational left-handed reliever, but why couldn't it happen? Maybe Saturday was a good day for those kinds of dreams, even if they're idle daydreams.
Pitchers don't face each other. They face hitters. Saturday screamed out for a face-to-face meeting, however. Luckily, Sailors pinch-hit against Sementelli in the seventh inning, a nifty idea by the San Marcos coach. She fouled off a slider, took one for a strike and then got a third and hit a looping shot into left-center field for a hit.
That was another sweet moment, but rare trouble for Sementelli. It didn't bother her much. She worked her way out of the jam for her first career complete game. The hit gave Sailors a distinction she had earned.
Sailors started pitching at age 7. Her dad, Robert, hired the best private pitching coach he could find nearby, a guy named Casey Cloud who had played a little minor league ball. At first, Sailors couldn't get the ball to the plate, so Cloud moved the rubber closer. Eventually, she got it just far enough and the batters kept striking out because the ball fell so suddenly at the end.
To be a pioneer, you have to start to savor the word, "No," after a while. Sailors has gotten to the point that she embraces even taunts. She bought pink batting gloves because so many boys had suggested she wear them over the years.
"They're like, 'Where's your pink batting helmet?' 'Oooh, it's a girl,'" Sailors said. "I'll go out there and it's kind of a mental advantage in a way. They just want to hit a home run. They're going to swing out of their shoes, they won't even look at the ball. I could bounce a curveball 55 feet in the dirt and they're going to swing.
"Sometimes, that happens and it's kind of funny to watch."
Mark Saxon covers the Angels and USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.