Padecky: Lipperd strong-arming opponents

ROHNERT PARK — The first thing I did Monday, the first thing anyone should do after what happened last weekend, was to shake Samantha Lipperd’s hand. Wanted to see if there still was feeling left in it. Wanted to see if she grimaced. Wanted to see if it was discolored, chipped, broken, raggedy. See if the fingernails were still attached as well as the fingers. Heck, I just wanted to see if she could even extend her right arm.

Hyperbole, you might say, that preceding paragraph.

Not so, not when you throw 781 pitches in three days, when you pitch seven games during that span, when you work 53 2/3 innings.

With those numbers, exaggeration serves as a reasonable attempt to grasp the ungraspable.

“Overall,” said the Sonoma State All-American, “I was just tired.”

And your right arm?

“It was probably tired, too,” said Lipperd, so exhausted she couldn’t even differentiate one fatigued body part from another.

And that is not even the most interesting part.

Competing in a 24-team field in the three-day Tournament of Champions in Turlock, SSU won it all and — with all due respect to her teammates — it was Lipperd who did the heavy lifting. Four shutouts, a no-hitter, a Division II record 26 strikeouts in one game. Finishing on a 28-inning scoreless streak, with a 0.65 earned run average, Lipperd had the kind of results one usually sees in a video game or in dice baseball for those readers a bit older. Fantasy numbers. Outrageous numbers.

Incomprehensible numbers, like one could understand a squirrel dealing blackjack easier.

“I would sit back at the end of the day,” said SSU softball coach Jennifer Bridges, “and say to myself, ‘Who is this person? What do we have on our hands here? Did that really happen?’ She was a machine, a robot, doing the same thing over and over.”

In that 26-strikeout game against Hawai’i-Hilo Friday, Bridges, working the scorebook, said she had to stop seven times to recount the total. Lipperd struck out 52 percent of the batters she faced over those three days, those 104 whiffs more than twice the number of the old record (46).

“It got to the point,” Bridges said, “that we got bored cheering the same thing after every strikeout. So we started to make up chants.”

“Bing! Bang! Bong!” was one. “One-two-three-see ya!” was another.

“You ain’t got a prayer, sucker!” was not one, however.

And that is not the most interesting part.

“I believe any other pitcher in her situation, any pitcher would have been scared,” Bridges said.

Why? Lipperd is SSU’s only pitcher. Two other women began the season as SSU pitchers but are no longer on the team.

“No one could save the team but me,” Lipperd said.

Yes, she was nervous all right. For a second, she said. When she awoke Friday morning, on the first day of the tournament.

“My team deserved someone to carry them,” Lipperd said.

As she will this coming weekend. SSU will host doubleheaders against UC San Diego both Friday and Saturday, and Lipperd is scheduled to pitch all four games. So it’s not as if her days as workhorse/meal ticket are over. It’s quite likely it could be this way for the rest of SSU’s season, which might appear overwhelming except she got a big taste of it this past weekend.

“What would you have said,” she was asked, “if you were told Friday morning you were going to throw 781 pitches, four shutouts and have a 26-strikeout game all within the next three days?”

Lipperd just laughed. Ridiculous is as ridiculous sounds and Lipperd makes no attempt to act like Wonder Woman. You can tell that by just giving her a compliment. Lipperd will blush and you would never guess pink comes in so many shades.

“Sam blushes every time (after a compliment),” Bridges said. “She’ll drop her head down and shrug. ‘Like, I am sorry for causing so much drama.’”

With Lipperd sitting right next to Bridges in the coaches office, I gave it a test.

“Saturday you pitched three games in one day. You got to the park at 8:30 in the morning and you didn’t leave the field until 12:45 Sunday morning. You struck out 45 batters. You threw two shutouts. That’s phenomenal.”

As advertised Lipperd lowered her head, blushed one of those shades of pink, shrugged. Her response to various compliments produced the same physical response with varying degrees of understatement: “I was very confident and determined. … Our team has been through a lot of adversity. … My riser (fastball) was really working.”

Lipperd’s self-effacement, Bridges said, is one of the reasons her teammates like her and play for her. Lipperd never acts entitled, never swaggers or otherwise requires people to bow in her presence. If anything, she goes the other way, spending more time on the mistakes than the successes.

“I’ve told her she is her own biggest enemy,” Bridges said. “But it also the reason why she is so good. She is a perfectionist.”

So that walk-off home run that led to Lipperd’s only loss, the one last Saturday hit by a Northwest Nazarene player, yes, she sat on that one for a while. Lipperd is learning to embrace perspective.

“I’m getting better,” she said, “and not letting stuff like that eat me up.”

After all, Lipperd does have that 21-7 record this season and that 1.44 ERA and that tournament’s Most Valuable Pitcher Award and All-Star honor and 13 school records and, well, Bridges could have been tempted to put blinders on and push Lipperd like a sled dog this past weekend.

“I told her I would not cause her any harm,” Bridges said. “If at any time, I told her, she feels even a pinch in her arm or shoulder, if there is anything that feels out of place, tell me and I’ll take you out. But if it’s just fatigue, we’ll go on.”

Last Sunday afternoon, SSU arrived at the seventh and deciding tournament game, against Chico State, which is ranked 11th in the nation. Chico State already had beaten SSU this season. At that point, Lipperd had thrown 674 pitches. If she was shelled in the first inning and never made it to the second inning, it wouldn’t have bothered Bridges.

“I thought this could be a rough game,” Bridges said. “Chico would be the best opponent we faced in the tournament. After all those pitches, I couldn’t expect Sam to be the same as she was for the last six games. If she had left early, I would haven’t been disappointed. I would have left happy.”

Well, Lipperd wasn’t the same — she only struck out six hitters against Chico, the only time she dipped to a single digit in strikeouts. But she threw a five-hit shutout, extended her scoreless string to 28 innings and the texts and emails and phone calls came from near and far. You don’t do what Lipperd did last weekend without people noticing.

Doesn’t it feel like a dream, all of last weekend?

“Oh, yeah,” said Bridges breaking into a grin, “it really does.”

Samantha Lipperd lowered her head and nodded.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.