Sports

Fastpitchers throw nothing but fire

(L-R) Karen Robinson, Lindsay Willmann and Haylee Baker have turned into a formidable pitching staff for Bainbridge this season. The trio have combined for 154 strikeouts in 101 innings with an ERA of 1.86. Opponents are hitting just .188 against them. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
(L-R) Karen Robinson, Lindsay Willmann and Haylee Baker have turned into a formidable pitching staff for Bainbridge this season. The trio have combined for 154 strikeouts in 101 innings with an ERA of 1.86. Opponents are hitting just .188 against them.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The trio of Robinson, Willmann and Baker have been aces this year.

The Bainbridge fastpitch pitching staff has come a long way from its days as a staff of one when head coach Liz McCloskey arrived in 2005.

That first year, it was mainly Karen Robinson, then a freshman, who was the only option for the Spartans.

She went the distance for nearly every game except two, going 7-14 with a 4.26 ERA and 57 strikeouts.

“I hadn’t even pitched the last couple of years” before becoming the defacto hurler for Bainbridge that year, Robinson said. “I was the only one who could kind of pitch. It was hard, but I got used to it.”

“Her freshman year was all her, all her, all her,” McCloskey said. “Now she has help and I think she loves the fact that she has help.”

McCloskey said she handled the pressure and the expectations with “grace.”

“She rose to the challenge,” McCloskey said. “It’s hard to have to pitch three games a week... it takes a toll on you when people are hitting you. It’s hard, but she did a great job with it. I was lucky to have her as a first year coach.

“I don’t think we would have gotten as far as we did if it wasn’t for Karen.”

Now, the Spartans have help in the form of two more pitchers who can throw the ball by nearly anyone in sophomore Lindsay Willmann and freshman Haylee Baker.

Willman and Baker now get the majority of the starts (with Robinson, now a junior, getting a start here and there) but the three have turned the pitching fortunes around for Bainbridge.

They’ve combined for an ERA of 1.86 with 154 strikeouts versus 41 walks in just over 101 innings this season. All three are averaging 10 punchouts a game and opponents are hitting .188 combined against the three.

All righthanders, Robinson, Willmann and Baker are one of the many reasons the team finished the regular season tied for second in the Metro League Mountain Division and one of the favorites to win their first Metro League title later in the week.

“The program as a whole has jumped so much higher and done so much more now that we have three excellent pitchers in the rotation,” McCloskey said.

Robinson is glad to have the two on the team as well to take some of the burden off her.

“It’s kind of weird not pitching a lot anymore especially because those two are better than I am so they pitch more,” Robinson said. “But it’s fine.”

The threesome’s talent in the circle and ability to play other positions – Willmann plays first base while Robinson and Baker can man either first or third, respectively and catch as well – have made them key contributors to a strong lineup.

The three are even attracting attention from others.

Former Seattle Mariners catcher Dan Wilson thought highly of Baker when she, Robinson, catcher Brittany Wisner and McCloskey traveled to Seattle to help Wilson with his daughter’s Pony League team and give him some coaching tips.

“She can pitch,” he said. “It’s unbelievable to see how hard they throw. It’s not an easy delivery to pitch and throw strikes (with), so for us to see Haylee throw like that, we were impressed. Really impressed.”

Wisner, who has caught all three this season in nearly every game but two, has the best seat in the house to the trio’s ability but isn’t in total awe of what they can do.

She, Baker and Willmann have played together on Little League All-Star teams and select fastpitch teams with the two growing up on the island, including the Blazers, a select team that Willman’s dad started, and the Diamond Dusters.

But Wisner feels it’s not only their talent on the field, but their friendship off the field that makes for a better time on the diamond.

“It’s easy to catch for someone that you get along with,” she said. “I know what they’re thinking. We’re always on the same page and that does a lot, because if I’m on the same page as my pitcher, then we have a plan to strikeout the batter or get the batter to put the ball in a certain position.”

While Baker and Willmann have been pitching since Little League, Robinson has followed in the footsteps – sort of – of her older sister Sara, who pitched for the Spartans from 2001-2004.

“Because she needed the practice I caught her a lot,” Robinson said. “So I really got into catching. I wasn’t even intending to pitch in high school.”

Robinson had stopped three years prior to her freshman year so “it wasn’t like I’ve been pitching my entire life and (thinking) ‘I’m going to be the number one varsity starter’” in high school, she said.

That easygoing attitude has helped in dealing with who’s the ace this season, but Baker wasn’t even concerned about that coming in.

“Honestly, at the beginning during tryouts I was really nervous” she said. “But once we got the team together” it got a little easier.

“We’re all used to playing together (so) there’s not any competition. We all know each other’s skills and we know what we’re capable of, so it’s not like we’re competing against each other.”

While the three understand their roles on the team, they have different ways of preparing for a start.

Willmann plugs in her iPod with a variety of songs from boy bands and gets herself ready to throw.

“She has this own little world she goes into,” Wisner said. “You can’t really talk to her because she’s in the zone and she’s visualizing.”

Baker said she thinks about the game and how its going to go during the day while Robinson makes sure she gets and stays focused during warmups.

“Haylee is more of a pregame pitcher,” Wisner said. “She doesn’t necessarily prep herself, but once she steps out of the dugout, it’s automatic. She’s focusing on every pitch (during warmups) and she’s developing a plan.

“Karen is very mental. You can tell when she’s warming up that she’s focusing on every little thing and executing every little aspect of pitching.”

Willmann used that focus to make a name for herself as an All-Metro League selection in the first game she started as a freshman, tossing a complete game two-hitter against North Kitsap.

She quickly became the ace for the Spartans, going all 10 innings against West Seattle in a Metro League tournament game while striking out 11.

This season, Willmann has continued to improve, reaching double digits in strikeouts in nearly every start, including fanning a season high 14 against Eastside Catholic.

She also got the win against Bishop Blanchet March 27 and struck out 10 against West Seattle last Tuesday, a game that she admitted that she wanted to win badly.

“Last year when we put her (Willmann) in that North game and she threw a one hit shutout, you knew she was ready to play high school ball,” McCloskey said. “Overall, she’s just fun. She loves to have fun and she comes to pitch every day.”

Baker has also stepped up as a big time pitcher as well.

She came in against the Vikings in the first game of the season and dominated their rivals across the bridge.

“She came in and relived for Lindsay against North Kitsap and was practically unhittable,” Wisner said. “It was very impressive to see coming from a freshman.”

Baker kept it up against perennial state contenders Central Kitsap in her first start, allowing just one unearned run on three hits, no walks and six strikeouts.

McCloskey had seen her play before and with the team during the summer, but was wowed by her as the season progressed.

“Her quickness, her bat, her pitching is just amazing,” she said. “She is one of the hardest workers I know. She does everything, but she keeps it contained and she’s very good at it.”

Baker said she’s dealt with the pressure in high school thanks to her time playing select ball.

“I was ready for it,” she said. “I’ve been used to it. Lindsay and I were the only pitchers for the Blazers so we’ve depended on each other” for support. “Now I have one more for a cushion.”

They’ll use each other for support as the road to state becomes tougher through Metro and districts.

But all three said they’re ready for whatever comes their way.

“I think that knowing the focus and the skill that we can play with like we did against West Seattle, I think we all want to play that way again,” Robinson said. “If we get into a big-game situation like that again against someone like Holy Names, I know we can beat them.”

“You don’t really notice the pressure when you’re playing,” Willmann said. “It’s before the game that’s the worst part.”

“As long as we don’t let each other get down, we’ll be fine,” Baker said.

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