A pitcher's quest to be best

A pitcher's quest to be best

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A pitcher's quest to be best

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The Summer Olympics are over, but a United States team continues to compete for the title of best in the world.

And a familiar Delawarean is a major part of that quest.

Kristin Mills Caldwell, girls basketball coach at Caravel Academy, where she was a multi-sport standout, is pitching for the United States in the Women’s Baseball World Cup in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, this week.

Yes, some females play baseball beyond Little League, where most eventually move to softball.

Caldwell never has been able to shake her attachment to the national pastime, having played for Caravel’s powerhouse teams before graduating in 1999. She now serves an assistant to Caravel baseball coach Paul Niggebrugge, who continues to be her mentor.

This is the third time in eight years Caldwell has been on Team USA.

“I played T-ball, Little League, Babe Ruth, all that,” she said. “I played middle school baseball at Caravel. I think a lot of girls either hit that age where either the league won’t let them play anymore or a coach doesn’t really want them or maybe they have teammates that treat them badly.

“I’ve been really, really fortunate that I’ve never had that. I’ve had great coaches and accepting teammates that, if I was good enough to play, I could play. That continued with coach Nick [Niggebrugge] at Caravel. I love baseball and I’ve been really lucky to have people who’ve let me play if I was good enough.”

She has been more than good enough. But even on Team USA, Caldwell is a rarity. At 31, she is the third oldest player on the team and the only one with a husband (Lee) and child (3-year-old son Will) eagerly following her progress and looking forward to having her home.

“That’s the toughest thing. I really, really miss them,” Caldwell, who left Delaware July 28, said by phone from Edmonton. “This is the longest I’ve ever been away from Will.”

Caldwell started and won Team USA’s opening game against the Netherlands on Friday. She allowed one hit and struck out six over four innings in a 10-0 triumph shortened to five innings by the mercy rule.

She also threw 12/3 innings of relief in Monday’s 15-9 loss to Canada and wasn’t as successful, giving up two runs on three hits and also hitting one batter with a pitch.

Counting two tune-up games against Australia, Caldwell has pitched 92/3 innings, struck out 11 and compiled a 2-0 record and 1.86 ERA.

“She’s such a neat young lady,” said Niggebrugge, who starred in baseball at Dickinson High and Temple University before playing in the minors and the Delaware Semi-Pro League. “She’s extremely insightful and, from an athletic standpoint, mechanically sound and a great listener.”

Team USA took a 3-1 record into Tuesday’s game against Cuba. After an off-day today, round-robin play continues with games against Chinese Taipei Thursday and Venezuela Friday. The top four teams advance to Saturday’s semifinals, with the title game Sunday. Canada was 4-0 after its win over the U.S. on Monday.

Both Caldwell and her younger sister Bonnie Mills were on the U.S. team for the inaugural Women’s Baseball World Cup in 2004. Caldwell was the winning pitcher when the U.S. blanked Japan 2-0 in the final in Edmonton.

Caldwell didn’t return to the team for the biennial event until 2008, when the U.S. settled for the bronze medal by edging Australia 2-1 in Matsuyama, Japan.

Because of the birth of her son and concerns about the Maracay, Venezuela, site, Caldwell skipped the 2010 event, in which the U.S. lost to Japan in the semifinals but topped Venezuela for the bronze medal.

Caldwell first went to Salt Lake City for four days of tryouts during which 36 players were cut down to a 20-woman roster. After the team was selected, it traveled directly to Edmonton.

“I want to win one more gold medal,” Caldwell said of her decision to return to the team this year. “And I wanted to maybe prove to myself, too, that, after having a son, I definitely still feel strong enough to add something to the pitching staff.”

Little bit of everything

At Caravel, Caldwell became the first Delaware girls high school basketball player to score 2,000 career points. She finished with 2,131, a figure later eclipsed by St. Elizabeth’s Khadijah Rushdan (Rutgers) and then Elena Delle Donne (Delaware).

She also starred in volleyball, pitched and played some first base for Caravel’s baseball team, including on its first state championship club in 1998, and even kicked for the football team.

“What intrigued me the most was her desire and determination as an athlete,” Niggebrugge said of when Caldwell first came out for baseball at Caravel. “Her focus, her dedication, her commitment – all those qualities you want to see in an athlete – she had all that, not to mention she produced results.

“As a pitcher she was very, very good. She had great command, she threw different pitches. She didn’t throw terribly hard but she got hitters out and I used it to our advantage,” added Niggebrugge, referring to the overly aggressive “I’ll-show-her” attitude many hitters would bring to the plate.

Caldwell played basketball at the University of Delaware before returning to Caravel as a teacher and coach. In addition to her national team baseball, she has played the sport in some women’s leagues and even was permitted to pitch in an over-40 men’s Sunday league in Northeast Philadelphia.

“It’s one thing to long toss or throw some bullpens with coach Nick,” Caldwell said, “but it’s another thing to have some live batters and live situations that you have to react to.”

Caldwell throws a fastball, change-up, cutter, curveball and even a knuckle curve.

In addition to her work with Niggebrugge and actual games, Caldwell said she also has benefited significantly from doing sport specific speed and fitness training with Jeff Simpson, a former University of Delaware catcher who is an exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist.

Watching the recent Summer Olympics from London on TV with her teammates the last two weeks certainly gave Caldwell and her teammates another dose of incentive.

Men’s baseball and women’s softball were scratched from the Olympic agenda after the 2008 Beijing Games because not enough nations play the sports, so women’s baseball has virtually no chance of being part of the Olympics.

“We have only one common TV in the dorm [at the University of Alberta] and the Olympics was the only thing that was on,” she said. “We definitely identify with it and wish we were in the Olympics, but this World Cup pretty much is our Olympics so it’s exciting, for sure. There is definitely something amazing about it.

“You’re not playing for Caravel. You’re not playing for Delaware. You’re playing for your country, and that’s a pretty cool feeling.”

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