Duel between premier softball aces ends with open arms

On High Schools

April 22, 2005|By MILTON KENT

IT'S TELLING THAT in the first moments after the winning run scored Wednesday in No. 3 Severna Park's 1-0, nine-inning softball win over second-ranked North County that Kaila Jenkins went looking for Beth Mullins to offer a hug of commiseration.

Only a pitcher could feel what another pitcher was feeling in that moment, tossing inning after inning of shutout ball, only to see it end on a wild pitch in extra innings.

"I definitely [feel for her]," said Jenkins, a junior who tossed a two-hitter with 14 strikeouts for the win. "It happens to all of us, and you'll have that one day when it will happen to you. You never know. Whatever happens, when you come off that field, you're still friends. You respect each other. That didn't take anything away from her in my eyes."

For Mullins, a senior, who gave up five hits and struck out 11 in a hard-luck loss, the sympathy was appreciated.

"I would have definitely felt for her, with the two of us on the mound battling through nine innings," Mullins said. "You have to feel for the other pitcher. We came out of so many jams and it feels the same way. I definitely would have felt for Kaila."

Jenkins, last year's Anne Arundel County Player of the Year, and Mullins, a second-team All-Metro pitcher, have done this dance before, as school opponents, summer league teammates and close friends.

"Both kids wanted to win," said North County coach Tommy Thompson. "They're both good kids. They're probably the top pitchers in the entire state. They are very competitive, and neither one wanted to lose the game."

Their friendship is strong, likely in part because their pitching styles are so different. Jenkins has a developing changeup, but she is mostly a Roger Clemens-type power pitcher, with a rise pitch that bores in on hitters up in the strike zone.

Mullins, who led the Knights to Class 4A titles in her first two years, mixes her pitches a la Mike Mussina, featuring a change that seems to hover at the plate, alternately inviting and daring batters to hit it. They usually don't.

"A lot of people will bloop it off or foul it off and they'll hit bloopers just over the infielders' heads," Mullins said. "But I don't think I've ever really had anyone get a shot off of it. It's a really deceiving pitch, and any changeup for a pitcher is a deceiving pitch, especially when you have the same motion. Kaila threw her changeup really well and she had us off balance."

It's cliche, of course, to say that neither team deserved to lose a game, but, in a perfect world, the Falcons and Knights would still be on the Severna Park diamond, poking and prodding each other, darkness and the next day's classes be darned.

The game wasn't perfect, to be sure. There were missed signs, fielding errors and one of the strangest balks you'll ever see, when Jenkins took a sign from the bench rather than from the catcher, advancing a runner into scoring position.

But there was also splendid defense from both sides, especially in the late innings, when collars tend to get tight, even on tank tops.

In the Severna Park eighth, with the bases loaded and no one out, the Knights got a badly needed double play when left fielder Lisa Papsan caught a line drive from Jenkins, then threw out Alyssa Warco on one hop. Mullins struck out Severna Park right fielder Annie Roche to end the threat.

In the next inning, Roche kept the game scoreless by robbing North County's Jamie Buchheit of a potential run-scoring drive toward the gap by reaching up on the run and pulling it in while battling the late-afternoon sun.

Mullins had wriggled out of so many jams that it seemed a fait accompli that she would get out of the last one, in the bottom of the ninth.

Roche, who started the inning on second - thanks to the weird international tiebreaker rule that requires that after the first extra inning, each succeeding frame starts with a runner in scoring position - moved to third on a one-out sacrifice. A 10th inning appeared on the way until North County catcher Jessica Dembinski couldn't handle a high fastball that Megan McNabb whiffed on.

Roche scooted home with the winning run, and Jenkins was looking to cheer up a friendly combatant.

"It's crazy," Jenkins said. "And it's been going on for so long now, not just in high school, but in summer ball and since we were little. It's just crazy to be such good friends with somebody, and to go out on the field and be in opposite dugouts, it's definitely tough."

With the county championship seemingly on the horizon, who knows who will have to provide the next consolation embrace?

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