Has Lexie Handley turned a corner?
The Tigers' lefty has added 7 mph to her pitches, but can she harness her control in time to push Auburn forward this weekend? Time will tell.
Auburn has played 56 games this season, yet coach Mickey Dean still isn't exactly sure how to assess his team's ceiling.
Lexie Handley is the reason.
The sophomore has been a forgotten element of the Tigers' pitching staff this season — largely due to mechanical changes that added velocity and removed her ability to locate pitches. Yet a season full of forgettable performances may have been salvaged last weekend when Handley dispatched the final 11 Florida hitters in order during the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
She topped out at 73 mph that day. Her location was impeccable.
"It changes everything," Dean said. "When she gets consistent, she can be extremely dominating — as she showed at the SEC Tournament. It’s just that consistency. She’s got great stuff."
Handley wasn't supposed to struggle this season.
In fact, she wasn't supposed to have much of a role at all. The Ohio native transferred from Akron last summer as something of a project for Auburn coach Mickey Dean, who watched footage of Handley's motion and saw ample potential. So he reworked some elements of Handley's mechanics and hoped she'd put everything together ahead of the 2020 season.
"This was supposed to be a year of preparation for her because we had Makayla (Martin)," Dean said. "That changed."
Martin suffered a fracture in her right (pitching) hand in March; an injury from which she still hasn't recovered. That forced the Tigers' remaining pitchers into much bigger roles. Chardonnay Harris and Ashlee Swindle bore the brunt of that change while Handley, the fourth option initially, moved into the No. 3 spot. She promptly posted an 11.35 ERA through her first seven SEC appearances.
That didn't go well.
"It’s kind of been a rollercoaster for me this season," Handley said.
The issue, Handley said, has been learning to harness her new-found velocity. After straining to hit 67 mph during her days at Akron, Handley hit 73 on a radar gun during an intrasquad game in January.
"I didn’t even believe it," she said. "I’m like: Are you sure? Are you joking with me?"
That added velocity is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing? An exquisitely located pitch coming in at 73 mph is manageable for only the most elite hitters. The curse? Handley has struggled to locate her pitches, which often puts her behind in the count. That leads to walks and grooved pitches aimed at avoiding yet another walk.
Everything changed last weekend.
Handley entered a 3-0 game and dominated Florida's hitters during the 3 2/3 innings. She struck out five of those batters. Zero hitters reached base. She topped out at 73 mph.
Dean marveled at the performance because, well, it's exactly what he envisioned. He just didn't think he'd see it in May 2019. And now he's wondering if his reclamation project is ready to begin paying immediate dividends.
Auburn is playing in the Tucson Regional at University of Arizona this weekend. The Tigers will need something special to advance to the Super Regional round. Can Handley fit the bill?
"I hope so," he said with a smile. "I try not to predict those things."
AUBURN AT THE TUCSON REGIONAL
Where: University of Arizona
When: Tonight, 8 p.m. CDT
Opponent: Colorado State
On the air: ESPN (TV/video streaming), Auburn Sports Network (radio/audio streaming)