By Rob Moseley
Through 12 dazzling innings last Saturday, left-handed pitcher Cheridan Hawkins of Oregon kept Washington off-balance and off the scoreboard.
For five innings of the run-rule shortened first game of a doubleheader, then seven innings of the nightcap, Hawkins shut the Huskies out. She did so in a way that demonstrated just how far she’s come even in the short time since taking over as Oregon’s ace from departed senior Jessica Moore.
If any one pitch illustrated that development, it was a changeup to end Saturday’s opener with a strikeout. Last season, Hawkins threw her devastating riseball almost exclusively, and could barely get her change over for a strike – in the rare instances she threw it at all. But Hawkins has toiled in practices over the last year to expand her repertoire after taking over from Moore, and the results are showing.
“It was cool to see that the hard work we’re putting in in the bullpen is paying off,” Hawkins said. “That was nice.”
This weekend, Hawkins figures to be in the circle to start two of the No. 3 Ducks’ three games with top-ranked UCLA at Howe Field, beginning Friday (3 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). She comes into the game tied for the Pac-12 lead with 19 wins, second in the conference with 186 strikeouts and third in ERA at 0.98.
Hawkins still has leaned primarily on her riseball in putting together such a strong start to the season. But rather than throw it 85 or 90 percent of the time, she’s throwing it closer to 75 percent, working in a curveball and a changeup, and sometimes also a drop ball if she has a feel for it.
“She’s put the work in, and it shows in the confidence she has in that off-speed offering,” said Ann Schatz, the play by play voice for Pac-12 Networks’ broadcast of the UW series last week and the UCLA games this weekend. “I can really see the confidence, because she’s not afraid to throw it during different times in the count, regardless of the hitter.”
That Hawkins throws her breaking stuff at all is a mark of her development as a sophomore. Relying mostly on the riseball, Hawkins went 19-5 with a 1.55 ERA in 39 appearances as a freshman, 19 of them starts. In taking on a bigger workload this season, Hawkins knew she would have to work on her complementary stuff.
The work started in practices, with Hawkins throwing her off-speed pitches in the bullpen under the watchful eyes of UO coach Mike White and volunteer assistant Mike Roberts, accomplished pitchers in their own rights. Then she carried that work over into games, once she learned to trust the new pitches.
“You’ve got to build that confidence,” White said. “That’s part of it, is her accepting, ‘Hey, this is a good pitch.’ And you can see that building.”
Once Hawkins was comfortable with the improvements in her off-speed stuff, she carried it over into games in select situations, to counter a riseball she’s locating better than ever this season.
“The secret has been her getting ahead in the count, and she has,” White said. “She’s challenging people, and that allows her to throw the other pitches in not so crucial situations. The next step is getting to where she feels comfortable throwing those pitches at any stage, and that’s the part we’re building on.”
As Hawkins found out against the Huskies, hitters can adjust too. After her 12 shutout innings Saturday, she came on in relief Sunday and allowed two runs, getting bailed out by Kailee Cuico’s walk-off home run.
“Her ability to spin the ball and have so many varying speeds through the strike zone is what makes her so tough to hit,” said Teri Goldberg, a former player and coach at Colorado State who was the Pac-12 Networks analyst last weekend. “Although being in a conference like the Pac-12, those hitters will eventually catch on, as Washington did in the last game. So the key for her is to find new ways to deceive those hitters.”
The chess match never ends, in the duel between pitcher and hitter. But Hawkins is playing with a few dangerous new pieces this season.