Sky's the limit: Osorio brings calm, steady presence to the circleBy Kelly Ward | 04/07/2016 9:08pm
With the bases loaded and one out, down 1-0 at South Alabama last spring, Alabama coach Patrick Murphy called on an unknown, freshman pitcher to work out of the jam.
It was the first game of the season. Beyond the fall scrimmages and practice, she’d never faced collegiate hitting. She’d certainly never faced it in this situation.
“I kind of went in there just not thinking about it so much, and just throwing my pitches,” Alexis Osorio said. “But I will never forget that moment that Murph put me in there.”
Her pitches worked. She struck out four batters in 1 2/3 innings pitched and earned the win after her teammates put up two runs in the top of the seventh.
Fast forward nearly four months, Osorio faced another bases-loaded jam, this time with two outs and one she didn’t inherit. Against the best home-run hitter in college softball, someone who hadn’t struck out with the bases loaded all year, Osorio threw her rise ball up and in on former-Oklahoma slugger Lauren Chamberlain, whose bat couldn’t find the ball.
She pumped her fist, and that’s about all the emotion people think she shows in the circle.
“I kind of treat this sport like I gotta go to work, but I also need to have fun so I gotta get a good mixture of that in there,” Osorio said. “And being off the field it’s like I’m in college, I’m a college student so we’re going to throw a little bit of fun in there, especially with the teammates.”
Osorio, a California native, prefers to be outside more than anything. If she’s stuck inside, she’s bored. She picked up snowboarding quickly and spent holidays with her family in the desert riding dirt bikes. She’s a bit of a daredevil, except when she's driving her Honda.
When Osorio was younger her parents had her and her brother find something to do. She tried soccer. She tried gymnastics. Then, she found softball.
She started out on the left side of the infield, but she didn’t want to stick with third base. She wanted to pitch. Her father, Anthony, was the coach at the time.
“I didn’t allow her to pitch because she didn’t know what she was doing,” Anthony said.
When she turned nine, her parents took her to a pitching coach. A year or so later, she began pitching. Like most young pitchers, she threw a lot of walks, and it was a slow process. Learning to pitch is a process of trial and error, and for many there are plenty of errors.
But she stuck with it.
Her parents didn’t think it would amount to what it has now, an education at a four-year university. She is the first in her family to go to a major four-year university and the first to play a sport at one.
They didn’t think she would play sports in college because Alexis was clumsy when she was little.
“She didn’t look athletic at all,” her mother, Erika, said and laughed.
Alexis persisted and continued to grow as a pitcher. She played competitively on the Corona Angels from 12-and-under on. As an eighth grader, she tried out for the ninth grade team. As a sophomore in high school, she was the ace on the 18-under Gold team.
On that team were several other Division I pitchers, all older than she was at the time.
“I think her temperament makes her great so you wouldn’t know if she’s down by four or up by four,” Corona Angels coach Marty Tyson said. “She has a real strong temperament and a real strong competitor. People don’t realize that about quiet kids.”
As a senior in Premier Girls Fastpitch, Alexis was pitching her way through a back-and-forth game. There was a point when she decided she was going to win that game. Shay Knighten, now a freshman infielder at Oklahoma, was at shortstop when Alexis turned and gave her a small smile.
She struck out the next batter on four pitches and pumped her fist in the air.
“I knew she was going to be a great player,” Knighten said. “She already was, but at that moment, I knew, I was like, ‘Lex is going to be known. She’s going to make a name for herself. She’s going to be known for a long time.’ ”
When Alexis started looking at colleges, she didn’t want to look more than a state away. The farthest was Oregon, and Arizona State was high on her list.
Then, Alabama came knocking. Alexis wasn’t interested. She wanted to stay close to home. She also told her parents she would never go back to that state. When Alexis was 10, she and her team competed at nationals in Auburn. After the team was eliminated from the tournament, she passed out from a combination of heat and dehydration.
Erika urged her daughter to visit Alabama anyway, just to see what she would say no to. She didn’t have to play at Alabama if she didn’t want to. She just had to visit.
Alexis, only a sophomore in high school at the time, sat behind the most powerful coach in the state’s desk, wearing his trademark hat. She didn’t know who Nick Saban was, not yet anyway. She just knew he coached football at Alabama, which seemed like a big deal. The pomp and circumstance in SEC football was foreign to her in Riverside, California.
She sat there, having been offered some of Saban’s favorite cookies, and then, he walked in. He had a smile on his face, but if Alexis had a smile before, it was gone now. She was caught red-handed.
“Her hand in the cookie jar,” Anthony said.
Just not the one with Little Debbie’s cookies in it.
Besides meeting Saban, Alexis met with everyone on the softball team.
“A lot of the visits, you might meet a couple of the players and you kind of hang out with them, but no, everyone was there,” Erika said.
That put her parents at ease with the program. They wanted her to continue her college visits, but Alexis was ready to commit on her way to the airport.
“Once I came to this campus and stepped foot on it, it just felt like home to me, and I never got that feeling with any other schools but this one,” Alexis said.
Nearly everyone in the family loved Alabama. Tyson, who considers Alexis like one of his own, wasn’t so sure about her going so far from home.
“They had already went [and] I didn’t go so I was the one like, ‘Are you guys sure?’ and what we didn’t have was kids that had already previously went there so her being the first one also,” Tyson said.
Even now, four years after she committed, Tyson wants to make sure Alexis is happy with her decision. When Alabama went to Fullerton, California, for her homecoming trip, he made it out to watch her and a few of her former teammates play in the Easton Tournament.
“I talked to Patrick [that] weekend, and I said, ‘The softball thing is fine, but it looks like Alexis is very happy’ so that’s more important to me than wins and losses is that I want my players to one, get a degree and again, grow as a person,” Tyson said. “That’s our number one goal of what we want out of a college.”
The rise ball is Alexis’ bread and butter. It’s deceptive and seems to curl up at the end. Part of that is the spin she puts on it. It’s a strikeout pitch at its best, and hers is often the best.
As a freshman, she racked up 227 strikeouts in 192 innings on her way to winning SEC Freshman of the Year. She held opponents to .166 batting and fewer than two runs per game.
It can be hard for coaches to determine if a pitcher in high school has what it takes to make it in college. Alexis did.
“They have to have something that draws your eye,” Murphy said. “And her spin was so good. And it was a lot of swings and misses. It wasn’t mishits. It wasn’t popups. It wasn’t groundouts. It was a complete miss by the batter. And that impressed us. And it was effortless.”
This year hasn’t been the same. After sustaining a high-ankle sprain before the season started, Alexis is back to feeling 100 percent with mixed results. She’s 9-5 on the season with 127 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings pitched. She has a 2.79 ERA.
At the tournament in Fullerton, she struck out 13 of Oklahoma’s hitters before former teammate Sydney Romero broke up her no-hitter in the bottom of the seventh, and Knighten hit a walk-off home run.
“To hit a walk off against her, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I just hit a walk off against Alexis Osorio, my old teammate,' ” Knighten said. “Now we’re playing against each other, fighting for our own wins and to get that is just crazy. It felt good though.”
The year isn’t that much of a surprise to Alabama pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle, who pitched at Alabama from 2003-06. It happens to every pitcher at some point in their career, just like hitters go through slumps.
“It’s good for her to have some adversity,” VanBrakle said, “because I think it will make her that much better later.”
Alexis has worked her way to four saves, including one against then-No. 1 Florida in Gainesville. It’s all about getting her reps up since she missed the last bit of practice before the season. The pressure of a 2-1 lead with one on, one out and the top of the order up wasn’t that big of a deal for her. She’d been there before.
“She’s used to that and I knew she’d be able to handle that and she did,” Murphy said.
And when she recorded the final out, a strikeout, she pumped her fist in the air, happy to do whatever she could for the team.