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Pitchers Strike Back In Week 1 Of Athletes Unlimited Season

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(Photo by Jade Hewitt via Athletes Unlimited)

ROSEMONT, Ill. — When DJ Sanders launched Danielle O’Toole’s offering well over the left-field wall for a three-run homer in the first inning of Athletes Unlimited Season 2, it looked like we were in for more of what we saw in Season 1: offense, offense and more offense.

But the pitchers quickly proved that that would not be the case this time.

Athletes Unlimited’s first season was, to put it mildly, a hitters’ league. Players launched 99 home runs over the fence at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in 30 games, with Savannah Jaquish and Erika Piancastelli leading the way with nine each. Ten games featured at least one team scoring double-digit runs, including five in which the winner reached 15.

In an attempt to level the playing field, Athletes Unlimited added four pitchers to the roster for the 2021 season, increasing each team’s pitching staff from three to four. And so far—with the exception of a huge outburst by Cat Osterman’s Gold team on Monday night—it’s worked.

Osterman, who had the league’s best ERA by more than a full run last year, is still as dominant as ever, recording a three-inning save Saturday and then pitching the first no-hitter in AU history on Sunday. But she has company at the top of the pitching leaderboard in the form of a much-improved Taylor McQuillin and rookies Carrie Eberle and Odicci Alexander.

Alexander got the start for Team Osterman on Saturday evening, when they edged Piancastelli’s Purple team 3-2. The James Madison product pitched into the fifth and allowed just one earned run before her captain took over.

“You see the depth of our pitching staff,” Osterman said. “These younger pitchers are coming in ready to make a statement, and they understand. They got to watch what this league looked like last year, so they’re ready to show they can step up and pitch in this league.”

Sunday’s early game was McQuillin’s turn to shine. The former Arizona Wildcat struggled mightily in Rosemont last year, with an 8.61 ERA in 20.1 innings. But she was outstanding for Jessie Warren’s Orange team in a 3-1 victory over Team Piancastelli, not allowing a hit after the third inning and striking out five in a complete-game win. The wind was gusting out to left-center field, but McQuillin kept the ball in the yard all day long.

“This year, my mindset has just shifted a little bit,” McQuillin said. “Go out there, attack the zone, be myself, and just have a different year than last year. I wanted to have a strong start and then just keep rolling.”

Eberle was drafted into AU this year out of Oklahoma State and led the Cowgirls to the 2021 Women’s College World Series. And she was masterful in all three of her appearances, pitching 11.2 innings without allowing an earned run for Team Piancastelli.

Eberle struck out just two over the weekend, but she kept the ball down, a necessity with the famous Chicagoland breeze blowing out toward Lake Michigan. Of the 35 outs she recorded, an incredible 28 were on the ground, including three double plays. Her signature drop ball made Eberle one of the best pitchers in college softball, and she’s utilized that pitch to great effect with AU.

“It’s just sticking to what I know and remembering I’m here for a reason,” Eberle said. “I have confidence in myself and I’ve had great defense behind me, which is all I can ask for as a drop ball pitcher.”

Eberle’s pitch-to-contact approach has been a common theme in Rosemont. Pitchers are doing far better than they did last year, but they aren’t exactly blowing hitters away. McQuillin and Osterman each struck out five batters in their complete-game victories Sunday, the highest single-game totals so far. Aleshia Ocasio also struck out five in a 6.1-inning outing for Victoria Hayward’s Blue team on Monday.

Even at 38, Osterman is still the cream of the crop in her final season before retirement. She overcame an hour-long rain delay and some shaky defense for her no-hitter Sunday, and like McQuillin, she was strongest in the late innings.

“There were a lot of times last year that we needed one more arm,” Osterman said. “As we get past Weeks 1 and 2, (the fourth pitcher) will start to be more in play.”

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