Commentary

Fixture atop the lineup

Elk Grove's second baseman is ESPNChicago.com's Player of the Week

Updated: April 26, 2010, 8:51 PM ET
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeBalzano
Scott Powers/ESPNChicago.comFifteen games into the season, Jessica Balzano's offensive numbers are downright scary.
Elk Grove coach Ken Grams said he needed to call back with junior second baseman Jessica Balzano's statistics. He thought they were pretty good, but he wasn't exactly sure what they were.

A few hours later, Grams called again after calculating Balzano's numbers and admitted he was wrong.

"They're better than I thought," Grams said. "They're pretty outstanding."

Even that description may not do Balzano and her bat justice.

Through 15 games, Balzano, the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week, is hitting .642 (34 for 53) and has an on base percentage of .689 to go along with her 22 runs, 21 RBI, six doubles, two triples and two home runs from the leadoff spot. She also has hit safely in all 15 games, has 10 multiple-hit games and has gone 4-for-4 three times.

"I guess I'm getting pretty spoiled," Grams said after reading off the statistics.

The numbers amazed Balzano, too.

Balzano had expected that her stats would jump her junior season after batting leadoff and being among the Grenadiers' top hitters as a freshman and sophomore. She knew that would naturally happen from being a year older and more experienced at the plate.

She also assumed that with the pitcher's mound being moved back three feet, she would benefit from having more time to see the ball. The scale would be tipped slightly in her favor. Yet, she never thought she'd be having this type of season.

"I definitely am surprised," she said. "I was hitting in the .400s last year. This is great."

Balzano's approach is simple. Her routine doesn't change from at-bat to at-bat.

It begins internally, with her talking to herself and reinforcing confidence in her ability, as she steps to the plate. She'll tell herself, "I'm a good hitter. I can hit the ball." It's a method she learned from coaches on her traveling team and has stuck with her.

That is followed by her taking the first strike she sees. From that, she usually is able to gauge the speed of the ball and what type of pitcher she's facing.

From there, it's on. Balzano doesn't swing at bad pitches, but she's an aggressive hitter. If there's a pitch anywhere in her zone, she'll go get it and more often than not finds an open spot in the defense to put it. "I don't really focus on what she's going to throw," Balzano said. "I just focus on knowing I can hit it. I picture, 'you're going to throw a strike, and I'm going to hit'."

In Grams' 30 years of coaching, he has had his share of quality leadoff hitters, but never has he had anyone with the power that Balzano possesses. This season he had even contemplated moving her down in the lineup because of that power, but decided it against it in the end. She was just too valuable as the leadoff hitter.

"It gives your lineup an identity, a personality," Grams said. "I hate clichés, but she's setting the table. First off, she's really strong. She's got quick hands, incredibly quick. As time goes on, she knows what type of pitches she can handle best. She has a good understanding of what's in her zone. As a consequence, every time she hits the ball, she hits it well."

Elk Grove may benefit most by Balzano's hitting ability, but the aspect that Grams enjoys most is her base running. Like her plate approach, she's aggressive on the base paths.

"I just love to watch her run the bases,' Grams said. "She just attacks bases."

Balzano has already begun looking at where she might play at the next level. She's made visits to Bradley and Loyola and hopes to make more in the future.

Before that, Balzano does still have her senior season and a good portion of her junior season remaining. Elk Grove again is among the top teams in the state and is expected to be in contention at the end of the year.

Plus, it'll also give her plenty of time to continue spoiling her coach.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at preps@espnchicago.com.

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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