Arizona Softball

The need for off-speed: Arizona hoping to ride O’Toole’s change-up in postseason

Danielle O’Toole was nearly unhittable Saturday. (Photo courtesy Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics)

I had the good luck to run into Arizona pitching great Susie Parra after Saturday’s game as she was hanging out with some friends, including former Wildcat standouts Julie Jones and Vivian Holm.

I just had to ask Parra, now a private pitching coach, about what she had just seen from the latest Arizona ace, Danielle O’Toole.

The senior left-hander took a no-hitter into the seventh before giving up a one-out double in a 5-0 victory over South Carolina as the Wildcats advanced to the final of an NCAA regional at Hillenbrand Stadium.

Specifically, I asked Parra what she thought about O’Toole’s out pitch, the change-up.

“It’s funny sick,” she said.

That’s as good a description as any, although the Gamecocks probably weren’t laughing. They stuck out seven times, including five in a row, spanning the third, fourth and fifth innings, fooled by the darting-downward change-up.

“Another great thing today with Tooly was just her ability to through the lineup and not really utilize her off-speed pitch and then all of a sudden, the second time around, that became a weapon,” said Arizona coach Mike Candrea.

“I think those are little things in the postseason you have to be able to do. And if you have the luxury to be able to hold a pitch back for the second or third time through the lineup, that’s pretty beneficial.”

The list of great change-ups in Arizona history starts with Taryne Mowatt — still the stuff of legends for how she used the pitch to dance out of trouble and topple Tennessee for the 2007 World Series title — and O’Toole. That’s about it. The Wildcats have a pantheon of All-America pitchers, but those two are the masters of the change.

“They knew it was coming, and they still couldn’t hit it,” Candrea said of South Carolina’s hitters. “When you can tell someone, ‘Change-up!’ and then you throw it and they still can’t hit it, you know it’s pretty good.”

Of course, O’Toole was making no such announcement to the Gamecocks, intentionally or unintentionally. She disguises the change-up so well because she maintains the same arm speed she uses for her other assortment of pitches, including a rise ball that she added to her repertoire this season.

“You can’t tell,” Candrea said.

“Most kids when they throw a change-up, they kind of slow things down or they give it away, but hers, no.”

It’s been a age-old game of cat-and-mouse between pitchers and coaches, who will try to pick up “tells” from the pitchers or spy how they grip the ball in the glove before the wind-up. The coaches can then deliver verbal or non-verbal clues to the hitter to be ready for the off-speed pitch.

O’Toole is too clever for that game, Candrea said.

“She will show it you and then throw you something else,” Candrea said. “She’s pretty smart.”

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O’Toole, the first Wildcat to be selected Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year since Alicia Hollowell in 2004, improved Saturday to 29-4, dropping her ERA to 1.02.

He effort was the second postseason one-hitter of her two-year career at Arizona; she also did it against Tennessee last year. On Saturday, the only hit was a sharp double to left-center. She said he was definitely aware she was working on a no-hitter when she went out for the seventh.

“You just go do your job and it doesn’t matter if anything happens to effect that,” O’Toole said. “You just go and do your job.”

If Arizona ends up going far this postseason, it will be because of O’Toole, because of that change-up, because of all the movement and deception she packs into that pitch.

If it stays “funny sick,” then you have to like the Cats’ chances.

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