Baker beats back injury bug, opponents

Former Skyview softball star is back pitching at UCLA

By Kurt Zimmer, Columbian Sports Reporter

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Whitney Baker did not have any trouble with injuries during her four years at Skyview High School that included twice being named The Columbian’s All-Region Softball Athlete of the Year and a state record for strikeouts that still stood until last week.

She does not consider herself injury-prone now, even though an array of ailments have limited her to 36 appearances in four seasons at UCLA — just plagued by bad luck.

“In high school, I was perfectly healthy,” she said. “I just ran into some bad luck, I think. I can’t put my finger on it. I can’t relate them all together. I’ve just run into some really bad luck since I’ve been here.”

Baker was 4-3 in 11 appearances as a freshman at UCLA. She played in the first two games of the next season without a decision before taking a medical redshirt year.

She was 9-2 in 17 appearances last season as a redshirt sophomore, including 15 starts. After missing much of the early part of this season, Baker has remained healthy — knock on wood — and is 3-1 with a 2.40 ERA in six appearances, including five starts.

“Oh, goodness,” Baker said when asked for her injury list. “That’s embarrassing.”

Then, the list begins.

“My freshman year, I had a collapsed lung, then at the end of the year, I had a stress fracture in my rib,” she said. “The following year, I redshirted because in the second game of the season, they found another stress fracture in my rib. Third season, I had some partial tearing of some tendons in my foot.

“This year, I just ran into bad luck. Little stupid things have happened all year. At the beginning of the season, I was a couple of days from getting into a game and I was throwing at practice. A ball came through the net and hit my elbow, so I had some ulnar nerve bruising that kept me out for about five weeks. Little crazy things have happened to me. It’s all bad luck. It’s not necessarily health problems.”

All those injury layoffs have made Baker even more of a student of the game, she said.

She has had to rebuild her pitching every time, a process of mechanics and awarness of her own body that she said used to take weeks but now returns to her more quickly.

“I’ve pretty much mastered mechanics of pitching because I’ve had to start from scratch so many times,” she said. “I would say the biggest thing that has held me back is just being able to throw long enough to build strength. You can lift and rehab and train, but there’s nothing that will replace just pitching. Not being able to throw consistently for a stretch of time has been the biggest setback. I haven’t reached my full potential, which I think I’m completely capable of still, given a healthy body, but you can’t do anything about it. You work with what you’ve got.”

Baker said that while all of her injury setbacks have been “more than frustrating,” she has also come to realize that the process is making her a better person.

“It’s made me stronger, definitely, because of having to deal with that kind of adversity for four years straight is a lot — on top of going to a school that’s academically really challenging,” she said. “It’s been frustrating, but it’s definitely made me stronger.

“I don’t think I would be emotionally as stable and able to deal with things as I am after all of this. It’s tough that I didn’t get to go through my career the way I envisioned it my freshman year, but I also think that through all of the frustration and the injury, it’s given me some perspective and it’s given me some tools that I can take with me into the real world outside of softball.”

Good choices

Baker and her seven-pitch repertoire — fastball, changeup, riseball, curveball, drop ball, flip drop and slider — have helped the perennial powerhouse Bruins to records of 38-10 overall and 12-6 in the rugged Pacific-10 Conference.

Only a three-game series this weekend at rival Arizona remains in the regular season before NCAA postseason play begins.

Rather than relying on a set rotation, coach Kelly Inouye-Perez lines up her pitchers for each series based on how the opposing hitters match up against each of the five UCLA pitchers and what Baker said are their “very, very different” strengths.

“I’m more of a dropball pitcher, with a lot of movement,” Baker said. “Another one of our pitchers is a riseball pitcher, so that’s completely opposite. We’ve got one girl who throws a lot of screwballs. We’ve got a lefty who throws like a typical lefty: a lot of junk that gets people to miss with a lot of movement, and another girl who just throws hard. I would say my strength is my dropball, and I have a good changeup. We don’t have one person who we depend on all the time, which is a strength, I think.”

A significant change in Pac-10 scheduling this season plays to UCLA’s strength of having five solid pitchers. Teams now play three-game weekend series against the same opponent, instead of a single game against one team then two games against a different one. Facing the same team three times in a row makes it unadvisable to run out one staff ace for the opposing hitters to see perhaps 12 times in three days.

“Softball has historically been a sport where you have an ace pitcher and you ride her the whole year and hope it turns out well,” Baker said ... “so we’re fortunate that we have such a large staff. We hopefully can use it to our advantage.”

Bruin pride

Even though she had a healthier experience in mind for her time as a Bruin — and without the medical redshirt year, this would be her senior season — Baker is grateful for the experience of being part of the most decorated program in NCAA Division I softball history.

UCLA’s softball media guide cover is emblazoned “11-time national champions,” although, for the record, the NCAA considers the 1995 title vacated because of recruiting violations. Arizona has won eight.

Only one other school, Texas A&M with two, has won more than one.

“It’s an honor,” Baker said of being a Bruin. “It’s exciting because you’re playing with the best talent in the country, and it’s great to be able to have the person in front of you and the person behind you constantly pushing you to do better. You can’t bank on a starting spot when you have so much talent on a team.

“Being around the talent level is just one of the most exciting things. The resources that are made available to you, both academically and athletically, is really cool — and the atmosphere that we play in. Everyone around you is committed to winning a championship, and that’s what our goal is. That’s the goal of every person on our team. It’s cool to have a full team with a common goal that is full of talent and will push you to be the best you can be.”

UCLA, which had never before gone more than three years without winning an NCAA championship, has not added to its historic haul since 2004. The last four titles were won by Pac-10 teams: Arizona in 2006 and 2007, Arizona State in 2008 and Washington last year.

Washington wrapped up the Pac-10 title last weekend. The winner of this weekend’s UCLA-Arizona series will finish second in the conference.

Of course, all of that was pretty much news to Baker.

“Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the standings,” she said. “I’m sure the coaches know, but our team has always not worried about our own press. We’re told not to look at our own press, and we’re not supposed to look at rankings and all of that because it’s just noise in your head that you don’t need when you’re playing.”

Much more than second place is on the line this weekend in Tucson, however. UCLA-Arizona is a rivalry that has raged since intercollegiate softball began.

The fact that UCLA’s crosstown rival Southern California is one of two Pac-10 schools — Washington State is the other — with no softball program has longed trained the Bruins’ sights on the desert.

“It’s a big weekend,” Baker said. “The Arizona-UCLA rivalry is kind of like our SC, because SC doesn’t have softball. That rivalry has been around forever. It’s a big game and it’s exciting because they always have packed stands. You always have fans chirping in your ears, but that’s the kind of atmosphere you practice for — to get on the big stage and have everyone want you to lose. The great thing about sports is being able to step up in those kind of moments.”

And Baker hopes for more moments like that on the road to the Women’s College World Series, and a hopefully healthy senior season next year.

“I’m picking up steam,” she said. “I’m getting healthier and we’re going into postseason and I’m feeling good, so it’s turned around just in time.”