One month ago, Eastside trailed 2-0 going into the sixth inning of a game against Morgan County. It was senior night — Sept. 23 to be exact.
"That game was miserable for everybody," Eastside pitcher Amanda Henderson said. "Morgan County is a great school and they have a great program, but that’s not a team we should lose to. Not at home. Not on senior night."
With runners at second and third, things could have gone from bad to worse. Instead, Henderson worked out of the jam and her teammates picked her up in the seventh. That was 10 games ago. Since then, Henderson has been unhitable.
"It’s like we flipped a switch," Eastside head coach Heather Wood said. "Everything has come together and right now, Amanda is pitching as good as she ever has."
Eastside’s junior fire baller hasn’t yielded an earned run for nearly a month. During that span, the Lady Eagles have gone 10-0 and outscored their opponent 88-1. That’s right, 88-1. Eastside swept both the 8-AAA regional and 3A North sectional playoffs and are on the verge of a possible state championship. The only blemish came on an unearned run against, of all teams, Morgan County in the sectional finals Saturday.
Assistant coach Michael Poor has built a close bond with the ace pitcher. In the past, Eastside has relied on veteran catchers such as current Georgia State University standout Kat Lee, to call games from behind the plate. But this year, with a freshman catcher, Wood decided on a different approach. She asked Poor, who was a pitcher himself and coaches the Eastside baseball team, if he would work with her and call games from the dugout.
The two, along with catcher Amanda Hawkins, sit down before every game and go over the tendencies of each hitter. On long bus rides, Poor and Henderson will talk about pitching and what they want to do during the game.
"We usually like to work the ball from the inside out," Poor said. "Depending on what type of hitter is up, we’ll always play to their weakness."
Poor has the luxury of choosing one of several pitches. Henderson hasn’t been on the radar gun since before the season started, but he insists she’s picked up three to five miles per hour on her pitches. What’s more, he said what makes her so hard to hit is the fact that she can throw every pitch in her arsenal with nearly the same velocity.
"She has traditional pitches like a fastball but I think we've only called that pitch four times the whole season," he said. "Why pick something that just goes straight if I can pick something just as hard that breaks a foot?"
Poor has Henderson throw a long-toss routine in preparation to pitch. The added distance has increased her arm strength and is a big reason for the added velocity. Even from the beginning of the season, she’s added speed. That was apparent last week when she shut out Oconee County after dropping two games to them in the regular season.
After Poor and Henderson have gone over the game plan, she warms up with her catcher. You would think a good warm-up session would be a precursor to a good game, right? Not so fast. She says the better she warms up, the worse she throws during a game.
Sometimes Poor will even try to rattle her a bit or tell her to uncork a pitch over the catcher’s head a la Tim Robbins in "Bull Durham". It helps to calm her down and doesn’t hurt that it psyches the opponent’s leadoff hitter to boot.
Some pitchers rely on off-speed and junk to get hitters out. Not Henderson. Entering tomorrow’s state playoffs in Columbus, she’s accumulated 313 strikeouts – the 10th best single season total in Georgia high school history - and she’s averaging 11.7 strikeouts per seven innings versus just 2.21 walks.
Henderson generates tremendous power from her legs. Poor admits he doesn’t know as much about softball mechanics as he does baseball but he knows enough not to mess with hers. He leaves that up to her private pitching coach Dan Wallace, who she visits once a week.
"We’ll talk about how I played over the week, what worked for me and what didn’t he will watch me throw the pitches that I had trouble with," Henderson said. "He will look at the pitches that didn’t work and we’ll work on that until he fixes them."
Henderson isn’t tall like a prototypical power pitcher. But what she does have is powerful legs. According to Wallace, stature is only part of pitching. It’s what you do with what you have that matters.
"If you have perfect form, you are going to maximize what God has given," Wallace said. "You arm circle and timing has to be perfect. Your speed comes from those and the velocity comes from the power in your legs."
Both Poor and Wallace agree that Henderson’s bread and butter is her rise ball. When she arrived under Wallace’s tutelage three years ago, she knew how to get the ball across the plate. Over the past three years, he’s helped her develop as many as six pitches. But it’s her riser that devastates hitters.
"When she came to me she knew how to throw a ball but she didn’t know how to throw with the proper spin," Wallace said. "That’s now her best pitch. It’s a pitch that starts at the belt and by the time it gets to the plate, it’s up near the batter’s chest."
The rise ball is one of the most effective pitches because hitters can’t layoff when it’s coming in at their knees. It’s also one of the hardest to learn, let alone master.
"Most girls that throw this pitch are actually throwing a screw ball," Wallace said. "It’s a difficult pitch to learn. Most girls can’t grasp the spin."
During a game, Poor will call the riser 99 percent of the time when Henderson has a two-strike count. Typically, she will start off a batter with a screw ball or a curve, depending on if they’re a lefty or a righty, then once she’d up in the count, she blows the riser right by.
Wallace said she hits between 64-66 m.p.h. on the radar gun. Considering softball mounds are 40 feet away, if you do the conversion, that’s equivalent to a 90 m.p.h. pitch from a 60-ft. baseball mound. Throw in six to nine inches of break and it’s not hard to see why so many hitters can’t touch her.
"If you have a dominant pitcher, one that can shut a team down like she [Henderson] does, it over powers good hitting," Wood said. "You can ride a pitcher all the way to a state championship."
That’s what Eastside hopes to do. But Henderson won’t be able to do it all on her own. Her team will need to score at least a few runs per game, something Wood thinks it will do.
"We’ve really been hitting the ball well," she said. "That really makes a difference. Over the last month, we’ve really hit our stride. I hope we can keep it up for one more week."
"It takes the pressure off when I know I have some run support," Henderson said. "When I know I don’t have to be perfect, it allows me to take some chances and really go after hitters."
Velocity and control are only two aspects to pitching. Guys like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who relied on control, didn’t even have both. But what they did have is guts. Perhaps Henderson’s best attribute is her toughness. Take the Morgan County game. After pitching a no-hitter through four innings, she got touched up for two runs. She worked into two jams throughout the game and a lesser pitcher would have cracked. Through it all, she made the big pitches to get out of the game. It’s this toughness that Wood said sets her apart, even from some of the great pitchers Eastside has trotted out over the past 10 years.
"She would be one of my top two pitchers I would hand the ball to in a must win game," Wood said looking at back at some of the girls that have played. "Her mental ability to focus is unmatched."
Poor and Henderson both admit high school softball pitchers can be head cases. But that isn’t the case with her. She stays to herself throughout the game, doesn’t chant or cheer too much and is completely focused on every hitter.
"My personality off the field is totally different than when I’m on the mound," she said. "I don’t talk to the girls much and they kind of leave me alone. I’m just really focused on the game."
It’ clear when a pitcher has that X-factor and when they don’t. So many high school pitchers are on when the game is going their way but are a train wreck once they get hit or something happens in the field to cost them a run. That’s just not the way Henderson works. As sweet as she is off the field, she’s a pit-bull on the mound.
As far as Henderson has come in a year – she pitched last year but wasn’t the No. 1 starter until this season – everyone around her knows she can improve.
"I’ve been working with her on her mental game because when she plays at that high level, girls are good," Wallace said. "She will play some very good teams, but we work on getting the batter to swing where they weakest. We know want to really turn her into a thinking pitcher."
Like Maddux for the Braves, who had marginal velocity at best, pinpoint control and a cerebral approach to the plate more than compensated for his lack of speed. That approach could make a dominating pitcher even better when she returns to Eastside next year.
"She has improved so much just in the second half of the season, I’m sure she will get even better next year," Wood said. "She works really hard and is totally dedicated to pitching."
Henderson will continue to play travel ball and that competition will only help her improve. While it’s still early, she said she would love to go to Alabama on a softball scholarship. But the Lady Eagles still have three days of softball left this year. If she can keep up her dominating season, it’s a good bet Eastside will be hoisting the state trophy this time next week.