Clare Hosack returns, earns respect

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The new face cage on her batting helmet partially obscured Clare Hosack's bloodshot right eye and puffy right cheek. Even Sunday, more than a week after fouling a ball up into her face and breaking several bones, Hosack could only open that eye about halfway.

Still, Hosack insisted she could see fine and the injury had nothing to do with her going 0-for-8 with three strikeouts over Baylor's exhausting 21 hours at the Women's College World Series.

Facing elimination Saturday night, the Bears battled Missouri for more than three scoreless hours before winning 1-0 in 13 innings, on Holly Holl's walk-off homer a few minutes after midnight. Not surprisingly, the Bears had nothing left Sunday afternoon, when top-seeded Arizona State's 4-0 victory dispatched them from the tournament.

"I thought we just ran out of gas, personally," Baylor coach Glenn Moore said. "The game last night took it out of us."

Both games took a ton out of Hosack, who caught all 20 innings, a chore made tougher by the heat Sunday afternoon -- 94 degrees without a cloud between ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and the horizon. Hosack tried to coax everything she could from Whitney Canion, her pal and batterymate, who had thrown 175 pitches against Missouri and understandably wasn't as sharp.

"I was tired today, but I still had a lot left," Hosack said. "I was behind Whitney the whole time. I just wanted Whitney to know that I was there for her. If there was any energy that she needed, I was going to try to get it out of her."

Florida and ASU moved on to the best-of-three finals beginning Monday night. But Hosack's return, as well as that of Oklahoma's Jessica Shults on Saturday, left a mark of resiliency on the proceedings. Shults struck out twice as a designated player after missing almost a month and losing 25 pounds due to pan-ulcerative colitis, an illness that left her face gaunt but failed to dim her contagious smile.

As for the freshman Hosack, even without contributing a hit she brought something to the lineup -- an arm that Moore calls the best in college softball and a connection with Canion that transcends the typical catcher/pitcher dynamic.

"Nothing against Kelsi Kettler -- she came in and did an amazing job -- but Clare's my other half," Canion said. "She knows what I want. She reads my mind. It's weird. When I shake off a pitch, she knows what I want in the very next spot."

That's why losing Hosack in the first game of last weekend's super regional against Georgia was so devastating. But Kettler's extraordinary fill-in job in that series -- she went 4-for-7 and threw out the only runner who tried to steal on her -- helped Baylor advance to the WCWS. Then her eighth-inning walk-off homer Thursday night stunned Oklahoma State in the opener 1-0.

That set up Baylor to play Alabama on Friday, which worried Moore. The Crimson Tide led the nation in steals and swiped four in five tries Thursday while beating Cal. Hosack had been cleared to play -- she was on deck to pinch hit when Kettler homered -- and Hosack's arm was the reason Moore started her over Kettler, a sophomore, in the first place.

But Moore hesitated. Could Hosack take a foul tip off the mask? What if somebody crashed into her?

"I asked all the questions and everything that came back was, low risk," Moore said, summarizing his conversations with the school's medical and training staff. "Worst case, a surgery, but no permanent damage."

So Moore went with Hosack in the field and Kettler taking her at-bats as DP. Alabama won 3-0, but attempted only one steal. Hosack threw out Kaila Hunt -- only the second time a catcher caught a Tide runner in the postseason -- while top basestealers Kayla Braud and Jennifer Fenton never budged.

Since Baylor scored only two runs in four tournament games, both on walk-off homers in extra innings, every hesitant baserunner helped the Bears' cause. Saturday night, Missouri was 1-for-2 stealing. Arizona State tried only one Sunday, when Katelyn Boyd was called out for leaving first base early. Hosack's throw still beat her to the bag.

"I wasn't sure she was quite ready to go back, but just look at the respect she has," Moore said. "Alabama didn't really want to test her, when they were running on one of the first two pitches on everybody with two of their runners, and they wouldn't send them on her. That's tremendous respect."

Canion said she had no idea if Hosack could play when Baylor arrived here, and was surprised when Hosack warmed her up before the Oklahoma State game.

"After a while I said, 'I forgot I haven't thrown to you. Can you see much?'" Canion said. "And she said, 'I'm fine.' I forgot she had the eye injury. I never noticed the difference.

"In that first game Kelsi had that walk-off home run, so what do you do? I know something was running through Coach Moore's mind. We just needed Clare's arm for that second game. Seeing her come back behind the plate was huge for our middle infield and for everybody on the corners, to know she's going to pick off some people and throw some people out."

Hosack wished she could have hit better. "I was able to see the ball fine," she said. "I told Coach Moore that I was ready to go. My at-bats weren't great, but it wasn't because of my injury. I had an adjustment at the beginning with the cage, but it was in practice, and it was an easy adjustment."

Said Moore: "She doesn't look like she saw it well offensively. I asked her, and she said she felt like she was seeing it OK. Maybe it was just timing. And who knows psychologically what that does to you as well?

"I'm just really proud for her. She struggled offensively, but she handles Whitney really well. As a freshman, that's pretty important."

Hosack's injury has left one notable legacy on the program. Next year, Moore said, no Bears player will be allowed to bat without a face guard on her batting helmet.

"I'm going to put them on every kid," he said, "and they'll get used to that in the fall."

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