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Pitcher's Star Is on the Rise

Softball standout Jennie Finch is a beauty, but she's also a beast to hit against, as major leaguers can attest. Her next challenge: facing Barry Bonds.

August 08, 2003|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Imagine Anna Kournikova firing ace after ace past Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras or any of the world's top male tennis players.

Imagine Kournikova adding such dominating talent to her cover-girl looks.

Imagine no longer. Such a combination of sex appeal and ability exists in the form of Jennie Finch, the softball pitcher from La Mirada who was a star on the mound at the University of Arizona and now in international competition, is a rising star in the broadcast booth and was voted "Hottest Female Athlete" on ESPN.com, beating out Kournikova.

And for those who dismiss Finch as merely a highly regarded star in a lesser-regarded sport, she is breaking through that glass ceiling as well.

It's one thing to blow her high-velocity pitches past fellow amateur hitters. She did so with the Wildcats in setting an NCAA record for consecutive victories with 60. She has done so here in the Pan Am Games. Wednesday night, Finch pitched the U.S. to a 1-0 victory over Canada with a seven-inning complete game, giving up one hit and striking out 10

It's quite another to blow pitches by big league hitters such as the Angels' Scott Spiezio, the Dodgers' Paul Lo Duca, the Colorado Rockies' Larry Walker and the Seattle Mariners' Mike Cameron.

That's just what Finch has done as part of her role as co-host of "This Week in Baseball." Big leaguers are asked to come to the ballpark hours before their teammates arrive to face three pitches from Finch.

Those who scoff at the idea of facing a woman who throws a big, fat softball at a peak 71 mph soon learn it's not as easy as it looks. She throws from a mound 43 feet from home plate, not the 60 feet, 6 inches major leaguers are accustomed to. With less reaction time, that 71 mph is equivalent to a baseball thrown in the 90s.

Finch throws five pitches -- riseball, dropball, changeup, curve and screwball. "All the pitches we throw are actually breaking pitches," she said.

"She struck me out on three pitches," Lo Duca said. "She's nasty. I caught her in the bullpen ... and I could barely catch it. It's just unbelievable how hard she throws from that distance. I think the difference is, the ball moves up instead of on a down angle. I wasn't even close."

Of course, striking out a Dodger this season hardly makes Finch unique, but, in all, she has faced eight big league hitters and only Spiezio has hit a ball fair, a soft liner that didn't make it out of the infield.

As one big leaguer after another whiffed against Finch, a foul ball being the most they could brag about, a scouting report was developed: Park your macho attitude before you come up to the plate, accept the fact you won't hit the first two pitches, which are riseballs, and wait for the third, which is usually a changeup.

Spiezio, who faced Finch at Edison Field, followed that report, but he went down swinging when Finch failed to come in with the change.

He pleaded for a fourth pitch, got the changeup and got the hit off the 22-year-old Finch, who stands 6 foot 1.

"He touched it," was all Finch would concede.

"The changeup would be really tough if you didn't sit on it," Spiezio said.

Ahead lies her biggest challenge, home-run king Barry Bonds.

Bonds, who will face Finch when the Pan Am Games end, has already begun playing mind games, trash talking with Finch at last month's All-Star game.

According to Finch, this is the way it went after she and Bonds were introduced around the batting cage:

Bonds: "I heard you're one of the best. Well, you're not the best until you face the best."

Finch: "You haven't faced my riseball."

Bonds: "You haven't see my top hand. This is what I'm going to do to you."

With that, the San Francisco Giant slugger hit three pitches into the seats, one to each field.

Texas Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriguez was not so cocky. He agreed only to come up to the plate without a bat in his hands. The Rangers may think he was worth a 10-year, $252-million contract, but he isn't sure that means he's good enough to hit Finch.

She often brings her own catcher along because big league catchers have trouble holding on to her pitches.

"If they can't catch her," Rodriguez said, "how can I hit her?"

Rodriguez, however, has made Finch a promise. If she and her teammates win a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, he'll step in against her.

There's a good chance Rodriguez will have to pay up. The U.S. women's softball team has won both gold medals since softball was made an Olympic sport for the 1996 Games.

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