Canon-McMillan pitcher Alayna Astuto’s superb postseason can be traced back to a 9-7 victory at Baldwin April 30.
Normally known for her control, the Canon-McMillan softball team’s ace pitcher walked five batters, including one with the bases loaded.
That led to a heart-to-heart conversation with Big Macs coach Michele Moeller, one that focused on Astuto’s confidence.
“She was doubting herself,” Moeller said.
Hard to believe now, isn’t it?
Astuto’s momentary lapse of control can be attributed to several things: catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko missing time with a shoulder injury; assistant coach Brian Kiger not calling pitches, the result of a new, full-time job that pulled him away from softball; and Astuto’s strikeout total dipping a touch.
But after the talk, Astuto caught fire. She relaxed. And she pitched Canon-Mac to WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA titles, racking up some ridiculous numbers along the way:
• A perfect game in the WPIAL semifinals.
• Eighteen strikeouts and a no-hitter through nine innings in the state final, which eventually ended in a 4-3 victory over Neshaminy in 12 innings.
• A 25-0 record, 1.06 ERA and 142 strikeouts compared to 29 walks in 145 innings.
The jaw-dropping stats helped Canon-McMillan make program history, and the playoff dominance entrenched Astuto as the Observer-Reporter’s Softball Player of the Year.
It’s an honor that didn’t appear possible that night in late April, the same night when Astuto, seated on the bench, watched No. 2 pitcher Kayla Kiger record the game’s final out.
“It was a tough game, but I’m glad it happened,” Moeller said. “It just seems like it was so definitive in what we figured out. She and I sat down to talk about her confidence. Things get revealed when those things go wrong. You have more of a chance to analyze them.”
Astuto downplayed the significance of her postseason accomplishments – slightly less shocking than if she would have predicted the sun coming up in the morning.
Humble and soft-spoken, Astuto said she wasn’t surprised with the Big Macs’ postseason run.
“No, because that was our goal,” said Astuto, who will play for Waynesburg University next season. “We were definitely trying to go for it all.”
With hitters such as right fielder Abby McCartney, third baseman Olivia Lorusso and Zeremenko, hitters who helped Canon-McMillan average nearly eight runs per game, who could blame the Big Macs?
Though at one point last year, Moeller tinkered with that offense by allowing Astuto to hit during a postseason scrimmage.
The result? Astuto was plunked on the wrist. Moeller’s heart skipped a beat. End of experiment.
“I was like, ‘OK, that’s it. You’re not batting anymore.’” Moeller said.
The application here is that it might be tough to pick a pitcher who doesn’t hit as Softball Player of the Year.
Unless, of course, you have a pitcher who was as downright dominant as Astuto … in the most important time of the season.
Astuto threw 54 innings and allowed four runs on 26 hits during seven postseason games, all wins. She struck out 53, walked only five, and her ERA was a paltry 0.26.
No one player was more integral to Canon-McMillan’s postseason run than Astuto, who seemed to find another gear, and another, and another.
“Just practicing every day. Trying to go out there and work your hardest,” Astuto said. “We worked as a team throughout the year. Even if there’s an error, you always have to pick them up.”
Astuto used to be known as the pitch-to-contact type, a pitcher overshadowed by the big bats on her team.
“Every playoff game we would go in saying that same thing about expecting people to hit the ball,” Moeller said. “Then, every time we would say that, it seemed like she would throw a perfect game or get 18 strikeouts.
“I finally think that she got to the point in her career where confidence took over, and she started to believe in herself.”