UMass pitching staff going through tough transition after end of an era

By Joey Saade

Michael Wood/Collegian File Photo

The Massachusetts softball team enters the 2013 season in a predicament it has not faced in nearly half a decade.

No longer will the Minutewomen trot on the field each game knowing one of the all-time best pitchers in collegiate history will be taking the mound on their side.

Sara Plourde has graduated.

Transition time has come for the Minutewomen, and coach Elaine Sortino’s squad will have to accept one cold-hard fact: Plourde won’t be stepping onto the field.

“Oh it’s different,” Sortino said about the state of this year’s pitching staff compared to lasts. “(This transition) gives us a different look. We’ve got a young and inexperienced pitching staff. I think that’s very obvious.”

Plourde, now a pitcher for the Carolina Diamonds in the National Pro Fastpitch league, graduated from UMass last year and took with her a legacy that may never be topped in program history. Plourde ranks eighth all-time in Division 1 history with 1,662 career strikeouts. She carried the Minutewomen pitching staff for the past four seasons, leading not only the team in every statistical category, but also being recognized as one of the nation’s best for her historical feats year after year.

With Plourde out of the picture, the UMass pitching staff must now focus on the tough challenges that lie ahead as it transitions into a different era.

“There’s no replacing experience, which we don’t have,” Sortino said. “That’s what they’re gaining now as we play through these games.”

The Minutewomen have relied heavily on a young pitching core to start the season, featuring freshman Emma Mendoker, sophomore Bridget Lemire and junior Caroline Raymond.

Not only has the lack of experience played a factor into this tough transition for the team as a whole, but also the different styles of play that each of the new pitchers bring to the table.

“There’s no getting around the fact that we’re going from a pitcher that had a high strike-out and pop-out ratio, to a young pitching staff that hasn’t had any experience under their belt,” Sortino said. “It’s a tough switch up.”

Part of the switch-up involves her team morphing into more of a ground-ball defense, with more emphasis put on the infielders to limit errors and convert on the always-important double-play balls.

While more of the weight will be placed on the defense’s shoulders, Sortino wants to make sure that all this added pressure is handled well by her players.

“They feel like they have to do a little bit more,” Sortino said. “Sometimes when you try to do a little bit more, you end up doing a little bit less, and you end up trying too hard.

“The defense has been put in a lot of serious pressure situations frequently,” she continued. “and it’s difficult (for them) to step back and slow down and let the game take care of itself.”

The Minutewomen have had a rough start to their season, treading through their first 19 games with only three victories. Their starting pitchers have combined for a 5.96 earned run average, while their opponents’ batting average is hovering around the low .300’s.

Nobody said the learning curve that comes with such a quick transition from one style of play to another would be easy to handle. Although Sortino’s team may be off to a slower start than she had hoped for, she believes that they’re heading in the right direction.

“We have to be very patient with our play early on despite the outcome,” Sortino said. “Each day I see small things getting better.

“Were constantly looking to make ourselves better,” she continued. ”We know that we are willing to do what it takes to do so, and it will come.”

After playing through a grueling road schedule, UMass will try to turn it around with some home cooking, as it plays seven of its next eight games at Sortino Field. UMass hosts Boston College in its first home game of the season on Wednesday, with first pitch scheduled at 3 p.m.

Joey Saade can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @Jsaade1225.