Lady Tigers have triple threat in pitcher’s circle

Apr. 18—SALTILLO — Saltillo’s triple threat in the pitcher’s circle could lead to some special things when the MHSAA softball playoffs begin.

Caitlyn Carnathan, Shelby Payne and A.K. Willingham are all ace-caliber hurlers, which provides the Lady Tigers with an advantage over most opponents.

“It’s been a super, super luxury for us all year,” coach Lee Buse said.

The trio has already led Saltillo, ranked No. 3 by the Daily Journal, to the Division 1-5A title. That means the Lady Tigers (15-5, 5-0) will get a first-round bye for the playoffs, which start on Friday.

Carnathan and Payne are both juniors and veterans in the circle. Carnathan has a 2-2 record and 2.06 ERA, with 26 strikeouts and nine walks in 34 innings pitched.

Payne is 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA, 30 strikeouts and five walks in 37 2/3 innings.

And then there’s the newbie, Willingham. The lanky freshman is 6-1 with a 1.86 ERA and has 72 strikeouts against six walks in 49 innings.

“She came in ready,” Carnathan said. “She’s worked so hard leading up to this point. It’s nice to have freshmen who work hard and have good talent.”

All three pitchers have different styles and strengths. Carnathan has the most velocity, with a fastball that tops out at around 58 miles per hour. Willingham can spin the ball and consistently locate her pitches, while Payne will work both sides of the plate and has a strong changeup.

Buse won’t hesitate to use more than one pitcher in a game — something a lot of teams don’t or can’t do.

“This is a game of adjustments, and when you can make someone have to adjust multiple times in a game, you’re at an advantage,” he said. “We have a pretty quick trigger on anybody out there, because we have two other arms we feel like we can trust.”

Willingham has the most relief appearances of the three, with five. Seeing a strikeout pitcher after facing someone who pitches more to contact can throw opponents for a loop.

“I think it makes them more intimidated, because they think once the No. 1 pitcher comes out, they’re going to have somebody they can tee off on,” Payne said. “But we always have somebody coming in that’s the same if not better.”

Something else that helps this group excel: no egos. Carnathan and Payne know what Willingham brings to the table and have welcomed her into the fold.

“They have encouraged me and brought me into their group, and I’m a lot more comfortable,” Willingham said.

The trio’s exploits are not limited to pitching. All three play middle infield positions when not pitching, and they bat 2-3-4 in the order. Carnathan and Willingham are two of the team’s best hitters — Carnathan is batting .404, Willingham .368.

Add to that mix hitters like Reese Vanlandingham (.508), Natalie McKinney (.433) and I.G. Presley (.400), and Saltillo has a chance to make a deep playoff run.

“I really, really think that we’re going to go to state,” Payne said. “And I don’t want to jinx it or whatever, but we’re really stacked, in my opinion.”

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