Catch Me If You Can

April 22, 2010

By Christian Caple
The UW Daily

View this day's Daily in PDF form

You couldn't see it through that postgame smile, but Kimi Pohlman was pissed.

She'd been thrown out trying to steal second base for the first time in her UW career, and to make matters worse, she hadn't even been given the steal sign. And this was in Oklahoma City, at the Women's College World Series, in the sixth inning of a 0-0 tie against Arizona State that Washington eventually won 1-0.

But what's really eating at her? She wasn't actually out. Replays showed that she got to the base at least a half-second ahead of the tag, which would have been her 21st consecutive steal at the college level without being thrown out.

'Definitely frustrating,' said Pohlman, UW's starting left-fielder, when asked about the call. 'I happened to misread a sign. When you move runners over like that, it starts a rally. We got it done a different way, so that's all that matters.'

She was less diplomatic as she exited the interview room.

'Hey,' she said in a whisper to the reporter who asked about the call, though loud enough for everyone else to hear. 'I was safe.'

Can't blame her, really. She almost always has been in her UW career. Now a sophomore, Pohlman has been caught stealing just twice in 37 attempts­ -- only once, if you ask her -- a masterfully efficient percentage, even for a sport defined by small-ball.

'I'm not going to be a person who hits 20 home runs in a given season,' Pohlman says now, sitting in the dugout before practice. 'But if I can grab 20 bags, that's me doing my part. I hope to steal a lot of bases. That's my goal for my career.'

THE LEAD

If there's one thing Pohlman hates more than being thrown out, it's being called out for leaving first base early.

That's the biggest distinction between the art of the stolen base in softball as opposed to baseball: In softball, you can't leave the base until the ball has left the pitcher's hand, a result of the shorter, 60-foot base paths.

Although, 'can't' may not be the right word there. It's like stepping into the lane a half-second early during a free throw. Happens all the time, rarely gets called.

It's how the best ones beat so many throws.

'It's one of those things where you probably leave early almost every time,' says Rosie Leutzinger, one of the best base-stealers in UW history and now the team's sports information director. 'You would rather get called out for leaving early than take a horrible lead and get thrown out by a mile.'

Leutzinger, who played from 1997-2000, was the Huskies' all-time career stolen bases leader with 113 until Ashley Charters broke that record this past season. She admits she probably wasn't even the fastest player on her own team, but it's that initial lead that helps distinguish a speedster from a true bag thief.

Part of it is fooling the umpires. Baserunners take leads on every single pitch -- which also helps them time the pitcher's delivery -- regardless of whether they're stealing or not. The key, Leutzinger says, is to leave slightly early on every basic, non-stealing lead you take, so as to trick the umpires into thinking you're not doing anything wrong.

Then when you steal, it doesn't look like you're doing anything out of the ordinary.

'If you're not stealing on a pitch, and you take a lazy leadoff, and the next pitch you are so blatantly taking off early, the umpire's going to see that difference,' Leutzinger said. 'They're just looking for a difference in the corner of their eye. So when you take your normal leads and you're going slightly early, the difference between you then stealing isn't that much different.'

That's part of what makes Pohlman so good at it. UW volunteer assistant coach J.T. D'Amico calls her a 'graceful' athlete, which is a big reason why she makes all of this look so easy.

'Kimi's easy with her actions,' said D'Amico, who also coached Pohlman during the summers of her high-school years. 'She's longer by nature, so she doesn't do anything from the umpire's view over there that really stands out to say `oh, she's leaving early,' or `oh, she's stealing now.' Everything is the same, it's the same, it's the same.'

When asked to describe the entire stolen-base sequence, Pohlman is sure to add 'wink, wink' after she says, 'you leave when the pitcher releases the ball.'

But she doesn't seem to think she needs much of a head start.

'If you're quick, you're basically challenging the catcher and the defense either way, so you might as well just leave when you're supposed to and just take that whole umpire-calling-you-out out of it,' Polhman said. 'That's the worst, when you take off and you hear `No play!' and you're like, ah crap. That's just the worst. You might as well just leave when you're supposed to and say come on, catcher, bring it. Let's go.'

THE SLIDE

Leutzinger remembers how hefty the price of swiping a base can be. Luckily, she never had to pay it herself.

But when she describes those broken, dislocated fingers she'd see on her teammates after they jammed their hand into second base following a headfirst slide, it's easy to see why she stopped sliding head-first about halfway through her career.

'My sophomore year, we had four or five players break their fingers or dislocate them,' Leutzinger said, grimacing even 12 years later. 'Every week, a different player would get up, and their fingers would be mangled, and I was like, that's disgusting. I think that may have also contributed to me going feet first more.'

So Leutzinger took a page out of Arizona's book. The Wildcats had a lot of runners who would run full-speed until they were about a foot from the base, then slide feet-first hard into the bag at the last second.

Maybe Pohlman just doesn't know any better yet, but she still prefers to hit the dirt headfirst.

'I feel like it's easier to get in there,' she said. 'Your arm can get through there easier than your leg. You don't have to slow down. I think it's more efficient.'

But even that can take its toll. Pohlman, a four-sport athlete in high school, said she's never been as tired in her life as she is after playing a handful of softball games.

Those head-first dives add up.

'You're sprinting as fast as you can and then throwing your body onto this hard surface,' Pohlman said. 'It doesn't feel good.'

THE GREEN LIGHT

Charters may have been the best base-stealer the Huskies have ever had. But even she couldn't do it without being told to.

That hesitancy is one of a few reasons why UW head coach Heather Tarr is hesitant to give anyone a green light, meaning they're free to steal whenever they please.

'I've tried,' Tarr said. 'I tried to give it to Charters, but a lot of times, we've had athletes that want to be told what to do. I haven't found one yet that likes the green light.'

Blame that on their high-school coaches, Tarr says. And their dads. Though the two are usually one and the same.

Pohlman, though, wants the freedom.

'I don't quite have the green light to go on my own, so hopefully by the time I'm a junior or a senior, I'll be able to just go kind of whenever I want,' Pohlman said. 'That comes more with instinct and experience and reading different pitches.'

What about that day in Oklahoma City?

'She had the imaginary sign in her mind,' Tarr said. 'To her credit, she was actually safe.'

Tarr wasn't as understanding at the time, apparently. Though Pohlman did end up scoring the game-winning run two innings later after leading off with a double.

'She gave kind of the disappointed nod,' Pohlman said. 'I got on the next hit with a double, so I didn't need to steal any bases. I guess she forgave me for that one.'

Pohlman would have to go on some kind of tear in the next two seasons to break into the UW's truly elite level of base-thievery. She's got a shot at reaching Tami Storseth, who is No. 5 on the all-time list with 89. Pohlman wants more.

'I had a goal this year that will most likely not be met,' Pohlman said. 'I hope to grab at least 100 by the end of my career.'

It's definitely possible. As long as she gets the call, that is.

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