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Cat Osterman was the youngest member of Team USA when it won its last Olympic gold in softball back in 2004. Now, she is its oldest member, trying to close out her career with one more medal in Tokyo.
Much has been made of the veteran presence that the pitcher brings to the roster—after softball was left out of the last two Summer Olympics, she is one of just two players on this team with any experience at the Games, and the only one that has won gold. Many of her current teammates remember watching her when they were just kids; to them, she is “Momma Cat.” But to focus exclusively on her leadership is to miss what landed her back on the roster in the first place: Even at 38, Osterman is one of the sport’s most fearsome pitchers, and she’ll be a crucial piece of the drive for the gold from Team USA.
Look no further than her comeback season last year. After deciding to come out of retirement just for the Olympics, she qualified for the national team in 2019, and was then left facing down an unexpected additional year of training after the pandemic delayed the Games. This made her a surprise addition for the inaugural season of the softball league Athletes Unlimited in August 2020—where she looked not just great for her age, but great, period, ultimately dominating the league and coming in first place in the individual player rankings.
So for perspective on just what it's like to work with Osterman in this stage of her career, and how she’s able to so consistently look unhittable at age 38, there might not be anyone better to ask than the Athletes Unlimited player who served as her personal catcher last summer, Gwen Svekis.
“There’s not a single person that steps into the box that she thinks will beat her,” says Svekis. “I think that’s what separates her—there’s not a single moment where she thinks that she’s going to lose a pitch, lose an at-bat, lose a game.”
Osterman has never been known for her overpowering velocity. (Her stuff lives in the low-to-mid 60s.) But that’s part of what’s laid the groundwork for such a long career: The lefty has always thrived with a mix of spin, craftiness and deception, giving her the sort of style that can easily continue to develop and be adapted over the years.
That starts with her drop ball. It’s Osterman’s signature pitch, with a habit of getting memorialized in GIFs, making hitters look silly with the cartoonish sweep of its fall-off-the-table motion. But what makes it so effective isn’t that gasp-worthy drop—it’s everything else that it can do. Osterman has such precise control of the pitch that she can easily keep hitters on their toes with subtle variations. She might start with just a slight drop, keeping the ball in the strike zone, perhaps more like falling off a step stool than falling off a table. Then she might do an intermediate version that’s more like falling off a chair. Then comes a pitch tumbling off the table. Maybe the first one was hittable. Maybe the second one was, too. But when they all start out looking the same, and a hitter can’t tell which one is coming, it can feel impossible to know just when to lay off.
“It’s not only its movement, it’s her ability to locate it, in and out, and to climb down the ladder,” Svekis says of Osterman’s drop ball. “So she can start with a pitch at the hips, she can put one at the knees, and then she can put one down at your ankles—and make them all look pretty similar so that you’re chasing them.”
All this means that the drop ball is hard to hit on its own. Unfortunately for her opponents, however, Osterman’s arsenal is deeper than that. Think you’re ready for the drop? Get ready for her to mix in the curve, the changeup, and the rise ball.
“People can go in there and sit her drop ball,” says Svekis, “But it doesn’t matter, because she’s going to set you up with the other stuff, and then you have no shot. If you get behind and you’ve been sitting one pitch the whole time and you don’t get it, now you’re going to start guessing, because she’s got other elite pitches. And then once that process starts happening, it’s over.”
To step up to face Osterman can be just as taxing mentally as it is physically—a guessing game that a hitter can feel destined to lose. If you can identify a pitch correctly? Good luck handling her famous spin.
The curveball can be wicked; Osterman has a particularly sharp backdoor curve that leaves hitters just as befuddled as her drop ball does. But it’s her rise ball—such an extreme deviation from everything—that’s truly vexing. Everyone steps into the box against Osterman expecting to see plenty of pitches down in the zone. A rise ball? Nobody thinks about that one. (While it’s always been in her arsenal, she historically used it less often, and she’s described it as the most difficult pitch to master for game use.) She made her name on the drop ball. But Osterman has become increasingly comfortable using the rise ball as the ultimate way to mix up an at-bat.
“Something that developed over the course of the season was we got very much in the groove of mixing in her rise ball,” Svekis says of their experience working together last year. “Nobody’s ever expecting it, which makes it 10 times deadlier when it’s on.”
Tokyo has been cast as a shot at redemption for Team USA as a whole and for Osterman in particular. She was the pitcher who started the team’s last Olympic game, in 2008, when the favored USA lost the gold medal in an upset to Japan. (Final score: A heart-wrenching 2-1.) This year marks softball’s return to the Olympics, which offers not only a chance to avenge that loss, but a chance to do it on the home soil of Japan.
But Osterman’s summer should be much more than a chance to vindicate the silver medal from 2008 or match the gold from 2004. It’s a new Olympic chapter unto itself. Because no one needs to turn back the clock to watch the pitcher work at an elite level: Osterman’s capable of it right now.
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