WHILE pitching is of central importance in baseball, it sometimes seems the be-all and end-all of women's softball. Players who master the windmilling, fast-pitch delivery often enjoy uncommon success. Take Lisa Fernandez, for example. Heading into last weekend's college playoffs, she had a gaudy two-year record of 56-1. Roger Clemens, perhaps baseball's premier pitcher, was 36-21 during this same period.
Fernandez could emerge as the ace of the United States team when women's softball debuts in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Right now, the priority is to help the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) secure another national championship.
The Bruins dominate softball the way the UCLA men's basketball team once held forth on the hardwood. By defeating Cal State-Fullerton two games to none in a best-of-three regional series (Fernandez pitched both games), seven-time national champion UCLA advances into the eight-team Women's College World Series, to be played in Oklahoma City, Okla., May 27-31.
Fernandez, a senior, has tossed 24 shutouts this year alone, including four no-hitters. She also has a nation-leading .506 batting average, and plays an almost errorless third base when not pitching.
Lisa and other top women hurlers deliver the ball in the 65 to 70 miles-per-hour range, which seems even faster because the pitching rubber is just 43 feet away from home plate (in men's softball the distance is 46 feet, and in baseball it's 60 ft., 6 in.). Kathy Arendsen, a softball Hall of Famer, once struck out Reggie Jackson during a made-for-TV showdown, and it wasn't just the speed of Arendsen's pitches that handcuffed the Yankee slugger, but her variety of pitches. (Fernandez also has a full reper toire of drops, curves, and risers.)
In international play, pitching duels can be frequent. To help break scoreless ties, a runner is placed at second base beginning with the third extra inning of a seven-inning game.
The college rules make no such provision, but the women introduced a new, livelier, optic-yellow ball this season in hopes of creating more offensive fireworks. The college championship game will be broadcast via tape delay by ESPN June 7 at 1 p.m. Eastern time. Indy drivers slow down a smidgeon
Qualifying and practice speeds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are down slightly this year from last year's record-high level. The "leadfoots," rest assured, would love it if they were still pushing 230 miles per hour. The speedometer readings are a few m.p.h. slower only because a rumble strip now awaits drivers once tempted to cut corners by the track's wide aprons.
Commenting on what the "one groove" track might mean come race day, May 30, Arie Luyendyk, who earned the pole position with a top qualifying speed of nearly 224 m.p.h., said, "All the drivers' patience will be tested ... because you can be stuck behind a guy forever. It's going to be pretty hard to pass."
Keeping speeds relatively safe has traditionally been a challenge at Indy, where the 2 1/2-mile oval's basic configuration has never changed. Today the track must accommodate cars traveling nearly three times faster than Ray Harroun's winning entry in the inaugural 1911 race, which averaged 74.6 m.p.h.