One-Two Punch Key for Softball

Out of Left Feld

Senior Rachel Brown is co-captain of the Harvard softball team, the reigning unanimous Ivy League Pitcher of the Year and the Ivy League record-holder for strikeouts. But she might not be the best pitcher on the Crimson these days.

Thus far in April, Brown has posted an impressive 1.36 ERA, but she’s been outdone by sophomore Laura Ricciardone, who’s ERA this month is a paltry 1.17. In conference play, Ricciardone has been giving up 1.7 runs per seven innings while the team’s incumbent ace has notched a 2.65 ERA against Ivy competition.

After years of carrying the staff, and the team, Brown has been more than happy to share the load this year.

“Having Laura makes me a better pitcher,” Brown said. “There isn’t as much pressure because I know I’m not the only one who can get the job done.”

And the feeling is more than mutual. One of the reasons Ricciardone chose to come to Harvard (one Ivy coach said she could pitch just about anywhere in Division 1) was because she was excited to play with and learn from Brown.

“Rachel is a great role model on and off the field,” Ricciardone said.

The sophomore said she has attempted to learn from Brown’s work ethic and confidence. It’s paid off. Ricciardone and Brown are two of three Ivy pitchers to boast sub-2.00 ERAs, and only one other pitcher has an ERA below 2.50 on the year. The two Crimson hurlers are also among only three Ancient Eight pitchers to have 10 wins as of April 18th.

Beyond their success though, Brown and Ricciardone share few similarities in the circle.

After flying under the radar coming out of high school, Brown has morphed into an elite, crafty maestro with remarkable movement on her ball.

“Rachel is a proven all-ivy player,” Penn coach Leslie King said. “She has a great changeup that’s really difficult for hitters to pick up and very good command. You know you are in for a tough outing when Rachel’s pitching.”

Brown’s litany of effective pitches has helped her strike out batters at an unprecedented clip. Heading into the weekend, the senior has 177 strikeouts in 124 innings of work. Last year, she set the Ivy League record by turning away 299 batters. Her style relies on some unpredictability as well, as is necessary to be an elite pitcher after teams have already seen you a number of times.

“It’s good to show you have a little bit of craziness and you can give a different look,” Princeton coach Trina Salcido said. “That’s why Brown is so successful. She’s unpredictable and she reinvents a little bit every year. She’s done a good job of mixing it up.

Unlike Brown, Ricciardone rarely relies on strikeouts to get out of innings and has only accrued 49 of them on the year. Instead, she uses deadly accuracy to frustrate opponents and draw outs while limiting big plays. Ricciardone has only given up 14 extra-base hits this season compared to Brown’s 27. Despite throwing harder than her elder, Ricciardone has also displayed amazing control, throwing only five wild pitches, 17 fewer than Brown. For a young pitcher, she also has shown a remarkable lack of hesitation about throwing inside to hitters, even if it means hitting one every once in a while.

“Ricciardone does a really good job of staying low and being sharp with her pitches,” Salcido said. “We actually had a more difficult time with her. Usually, in the second game we feel like we are going to be more successful but we weren’t able to make the adjustment on her low pitches.”

Harvard coach Jenny Allard said the last time she had such a powerful 1-2 pitching punch at her disposal was in the late 1990s when the team won two Ivy League titles in three years. This staff is attempting to one-up that as they go for a second straight championship after beating Cornell in the final series last year. That said, Ivy supremacy is no longer enough for Ricciardone and Brown.

“We’ve made it a goal of ours to take strides outside of the Ivy League,” Ricciardone said. “And that means Regionals.”

If this year’s Crimson squad is to make waves in the NCAA tournament, it’ll be on the back of its two leading pitchers. But if there is an Ivy pitching duo up to the task, it would be this pair.

Asked to describe each other, Ricciardone immediately said of her partner, “She’s awesome.” Brown quickly shot back, “Ditto.”

Thus far, it’s been hard to disagree with either of those assessments.

—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at jacobfeldman@college.harvard.edu.

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