Prior to this spring, mercy-rule losses were commonplace for Mariner High School softball.
And the wins? They were few and far between. At one point this past decade, the long-struggling program suffered a losing streak that spanned more than five years.
But that all changed this season. The Marauders shed their label as a Wesco pushover and engineered a massive turnaround, rising from years of rock bottom to compile a breakthrough 8-5 campaign.
At the center of the transformation was Alexis Slater.
The Mariner star hurler was a strikeout machine this season, totaling a whopping 190 punchouts and just 21 walks, while posting a 0.71 earned-run average in 89 1/3 innings pitched.
The junior right-hander struck out more than half the batters she faced — 52.2% of them, to be exact. She averaged an eye-popping 14.6 punchouts per game and 2.1 per inning. There even was a game where she accomplished the incredibly rare feat of recording all 21 outs via the strikeout.
And on top of that, she was a quality hitter who batted .415 with five extra-base hits in the abbreviated 13-game slate.
For her exceptional season and central role in spearheading the Marauders’ turnaround, Slater is The Herald’s 2021 All-Area Softball Player of the Year.
“She was absolutely dominant this year in the circle,” Mariner coach Nathan Beachy said. “Mariner (softball) history — obviously we’ve struggled quite a bit. And so to have something like this to build around just made everybody else on our team better.”
The Marauders’ eight victories this spring matched their win total from the previous eight seasons combined, over which they went 8-152. That stretch included four consecutive winless seasons from 2012 through 2015.
As a freshman in 2019, Slater was the primary pitcher on a Mariner team that went 1-19 and suffered 12 losses by 10 or more runs. The Marauders’ only win that season came against Class 2B Concrete.
Slater had a decent freshman year in the circle, posting a 3.08 ERA with 134 strikeouts and just 33 walks in 84 innings. But she didn’t get much help from her team’s defense, which committed 7.7 errors per game and had just a .746 fielding percentage.
This season, the defense behind her was much steadier. Mariner sliced its errors per game all the way down to 2.7 and increased its fielding percentage to .901.
“We had a freshman (second baseman) come in that pretty much solidified our infield,” Beachy said. “And I think once we solidified our infield, it put a lot less stress on Alexis to be able to just feel comfortable throwing the ball where we wanted to and not having to strike out everybody — even though that seemed to be the result.
“And our outfield made just enough plays to make sure that we weren’t allowing the snowball of runs to occur, like we had the past few years.”
In addition, Slater took her pitching to a whole new level. Over the past two years, she significantly increased her velocity and improved the spin on her pitches.
The results speak for themselves.
From her freshman season to her junior season, Slater increased her strikeout rate from 26.2% to 52.2%. She improved her WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) from 1.87 to 0.72. And her opponents’ batting average plummeted from .261 to a mere .126.
“The minute she came out junior year, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. She is lights out way better than she was her freshman year,’” Beachy said. “It was exciting just from the get-go. She pitched in a scrimmage against us and I was like, ‘Oh, OK. This is gonna be a tough year for some (opponents).’
“Never in (my) 15 years of coaching have I had a fastpitch pitcher throw at this velocity,” he added. “… And the movement on her pitches was just to the point where I don’t think hitters were seeing it.”
In a season full of impressive statistics, Slater’s most remarkable feat was her 21-strikeout performance in Mariner’s 1-0 win over Lynnwood midway through the year.
Slater faced 25 batters in that game. Just four of them reached base — two on singles, one on a walk and one on an error.
The other 21? They all struck out.
“It was insane,” Beachy said.
Slater, however, said she had no idea what she’d accomplished until she was told after the game.
“I usually blank out when I’m pitching,” she said. “I never know how many strikeouts I get each game until someone tells me. … I knew that we had a good game, but I didn’t know that I got all 21 outs. It was a pretty good feeling.”
Beachy said that laser-like focus is one of Slater’s greatest assets in the circle.
“She’s dialed in and focused on this pitch, this time, this hitter, this moment,” he said. “And it’s just fun to watch.”
Slater was particularly dominant over the final week of the season, when she closed the year with three consecutive shutouts against Edmonds-Woodway, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood — including a no-hitter against the Hawks.
Over those final three games combined, she allowed no runs and just five hits in 21 innings pitched. She posted 43 strikeouts and just three walks, while facing just nine batters over the minimum.
Beachy said Slater’s spectacular final week stemmed in part from Mariner catcher Sarah Angelos calling pitches instead of him, as well as an increased emphasis on pitching to the inside part of the plate.
“We were able to quicken the pace a little bit, because our catcher started calling pitches,” he said. “And so once we did that, I think those two got into a groove that allowed Alexis to feel a little bit more confident and a little bit more on pace.
“We (also) really worked hard on going inside,” he added. “And as soon as we did that, … it was just ridiculous how (much) more effective she was.”
Slater also showcased her improvement at the plate this year. Between her freshman and junior seasons, she increased her batting average by 132 points. And after no extra-base hits as a freshman, she had five this spring.
“She’s always been a pretty solid hitter,” Beachy said. “This year, she really was able to just keep putting the ball hard in play. Her freshman year, we had a lot of rollovers. She was swinging at a lot of low pitches. And I just kept telling her, ‘You’ve gotta get the ball up.’ And when she started getting there, we just saw a lot more ping off her bat.”
Beachy said Slater’s standout season was ultimately a testament to her work ethic over the years.
“She’s just been working her butt off for a long time now, and it paid off this year,” he said. “She just has such an internal drive to get better. We got lucky. … We’re reaping the rewards of (her) hard work.”
The Marauders graduate three starters from this year’s breakthrough team. But they have Slater for one more season. And the star pitcher said she’s determined — along with her returning teammates — to build on the monumental strides Mariner softball made this spring.
“I know a lot of the players, especially the juniors, are working extra time in the offseason playing softball, so I know we will also have a good year next year,” she said. “And I’m excited to see that.”