OKLAHOMA CITY — LSU’s fire-and-ice pitching duo of Brittany Mack and Rachele Fico comes complete with sidekicks.
When Mack takes the field and starts strutting and fist-pumping around the circle, she has Lauren Houston doing the same from behind the plate. For Fico’s intense, business-like demeanor, there’s Morgan Russell.
The pairs have forged partnerships that provide an added bonus to the Tigers’ two-headed pitching attack: two experienced catchers — a boost that gains importance in a tense postseason that brings little margin for error or time to rest.
“It’s definitely an advantage, especially in a two-games-in-one-day scenario,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “Even playing multiple days, we always know we have fresh legs to put back there. They’ve fallen into this routine, and I really think they’ve started working so well together like that.”
Russell has caught each of Fico’s last 14 starts, while Houston has donned the mask eight of the last 11 times Mack started inside the circle, building a level of comfort from matches of demeanor and skill.
Mack and Houston are the more animated group. Houston has lost her voice during both of the Tigers’ postseason series, and she’s prone to jumping on her pitcher after big wins. Also, Torina said Houston’s ability to consistently block balls in the dirt complements Mack’s tendency to throw low.
On the other side, Russell helps Fico channel the more reserved focus that has led her to a career season and the nation’s best earned run average.
And both catchers are happy to share the plate.
“It’s actually really nice,” Russell said. “If I catch a game and am really tired, I know I have Lauren Houston to help me out, and not a lot of teams have that. I felt bad for the Missouri catcher. She had to catch a 12-inning game, and then another game right after.”
Russell and Houston traded off those two games on Sunday.
In the first, Houston ran down an overzealous base-runner between third and home, pump-faked a throw and made a tag that knocked Missouri’s Brianna Corwin to the ground and helped preserve a 1-1 tie that lasted into the 12th inning.
In the finale, Russell blocked the plate perfectly and tagged out Corrin Genovese to end a Missouri scoring threat. The two collided, and Russell spiked the ball on her way off the field.
Both moments drew loud protests from the home team and fans, but neither looked malicious.
“Morgan and I aren’t the smallest people in the world, so we’re going to have some power behind the things we do,” Houston said. “We just wanted to be here so bad and go to the World Series so bad, I think it was just an adrenaline thing. We just stop at nothing to keep runs from scoring.”
And Russell’s spike may have paid bigger dividends.
She came up to bat in the bottom half of that inning, was pegged in the back and went on to score the go-ahead run.
“I had a feeling it was (coming),” Russell said. “Most pitchers, if anything rambunctious happens to their player, they’re going to do something back. I was happy, because they paid for it in the end.”
Neither Russell (.176 batting average, nine RBIs, four runs) nor Houston (.226, five RBIs, 10 runs) boast gaudy offensive numbers — but what LSU player does?
For a team that has seen five of its seven postseason games decided by two runs or fewer, doing the little things right makes a big difference.
“We’re in every single play, and we could be a game-changer,” Russell said. “If we let a passed ball go by, we could lose the game. If we don’t tag people out, we could lose the game. We know we have to be tough.”
Torina said the pair is also the most vocal in practice, setting the tone and pushing their teammates to work harder. That includes each other, as both characterized their relationship as friends looking to lend a hand to one another.
That was perhaps best shown during a doubleheader at No. 2 Florida on April 24. Russell presided over the first game, a 2-1 extra-inning loss that denied LSU its first win at UF in seven years.
Afterward, Torina said Russell, a senior, walked over to Houston and said, “You have to do this for me. I’m never going to get to play here again, and I’m never going to win here.”
Houston’s first at-bat came in the second inning, and she ripped a two-out, RBI single. Immediately afterward, she looked into the dugout, pointed at Russell and yelled, “That’s for you.”
The Tigers won, 1-0, in what Torina calls “one of the coolest moments of the year.”
And it’s a moment she’ll hope to see reproduced this week at the Women’s College World Series: two catchers working with two great pitchers, and motivating each other to do just enough to win.