Speed is Bramlett's secret weapon
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- How fast is Mississippi State senior Chelsea Bramlett? Fast enough to hit a ball four feet and end up standing on third with a triple.
All right, that's not entirely accurate. Bramlett does have five career triples, but they generally follow the same route to the distant reaches of the outfield as most three-base hits. All the same, there's something about Bramlett's game, particularly her speed, that sparks tall tales. It's the same spirit that fueled legendary yarns about Hall of Fame outfielder "Cool Papa" Bell switching off the lights in a room and resting comfortably in bed before the room was dark.
And it's entirely true that she doesn't need to hit a ball much farther than four feet to end up on third base eventually. She showed why leading off a recent game against Oregon State, when she steered a bunt that died perfectly a few feet away from home, just far enough to ensure the catcher had no chance to do anything but watch the number on Bramlett's back grow rapidly smaller. She then stole second and third in quick succession, before the second batter's at-bat finished, and slowed down only as she eventually trotted across home plate on a teammate's subsequent hit.
That speed has helped Bramlett become the most dangerous slap-hitter in the college game and took her all the way to Japan last summer as a member of the senior national team for the United States' entry in the Japan Cup, as well as in the annual World Cup in Oklahoma City.
Perfect on all six stolen-base attempts so far this season for the Bulldogs, she's stolen 152 bases in 166 career attempts. And while she won't catch former Georgia standout Nicole Barber, the NCAA's all-time leader with 254 career stolen bases, she will make a run at Alabama's Brittany Rogers, who ranks second all-time with 198 steals (Bramlett is currently No. 17 all-time, 10 shy of the top 10).
"We've never had anybody as fast as her," said Mississippi State coach Jay Miller, of both his college tenure and his many years with Team USA. "I mean, I've been coaching this game for 30 years and she's the fastest one that we've ever had, and that includes all our Olympians. …
"Now, there might be somebody out there faster; I've never seen them if there are."
Miller has a rooting interest in that debate, but there doesn't seem to be much dissent. Oregon State coach Kirk Walker, whose team faced Bramlett in this year's Aggie Classic and in a game last year, said her speed at least equaled that of current Team USA stars Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe, two players Miller mentioned as comparison points and players Walked faced many times in the Pac-10.
Texas A&M coach Jo Evans, whose next dalliance with hyperbole may well be her first, couldn't find enough good words for Bramlett after facing her for the first time in a game Feb. 19.
"What a terrific player," Evans mused. "I was really impressed with her and how fast she was on the basepaths. I really think she's a tremendous player."
Bramlett gave the softball world a head start, although as any number of infielders in the SEC and around the nation will attest, it wasn't nearly big enough. Growing up in Cordova, Tenn. -- years before University of Tennessee co-coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly and former ace Monica Abbott put the state on the national softball map -- there wasn't much competitive softball to be found for kids like Bramlett. Instead, she kept playing baseball until she was 12 years old. It was while she played baseball, in fact, that a coach grew tired of one player after another showing little interest in blocking pitches in the dirt and told Bramlett to put on the catching gear.
It proved to be love at first sight, and despite part-time duty at second base early in her career at Mississippi State, she's remained enamored with the tools of ignorance ever since. It's a little strange to see the fastest player in college softball playing a position more commonly associated with relative speed -- as in, "she runs well for a catcher."
It's also an advantage. Bramlett frequently picks her own spots to run on the bases, and someone who had to deal with the likes of Rogers or LSU speedster Kirsten Shortridge knows exactly what opposing catchers are thinking about when she's staring in at them from first or second base.
"I know the pressure back there; it's pressure," Bramlett said. "It's a game of chance, just hoping that you throw the right pitch at the right time and guess right. It's mainly just thinking every pitch that, 'I've got to get it out quick; I've got to make that good throw.' And that's where the pressure and stuff starts to set in. And the faster the baserunner, the more the pressure."
One of her first memories when she did make the switch from baseball was the amazement she felt at how big the ball was and the corresponding bafflement at how anyone could fail to hit it. That amazement was replaced not long after by a similar sense of awe at how much pitchers in the top levels of amateur travel ball could make that big yellow ball dip, rise and spin in the short distance between the rubber and home plate. Any Ruthian pretensions vanished quickly, but the new sport also offered new opportunities for a hitter with speed like hers.
"Baseball, I definitely just hit right-handed, hit for power," Bramlett recalled. "I would bunt every now and then, which was something you didn't see much in baseball. But when I got to softball, because I was so quick, my softball coach turned me around left-handed, and he was like, 'I'm telling you, you can do this.' Well, me and my dad thought he was absolutely crazy."
There are a lot of fast softball players who don't have what it takes to play the game in college. There are a lot of fast college players who don't have what it takes to hit close to .500 (.486 last season) in one of the toughest leagues in the country. Bramlett's speed is a natural gift, and it takes that gift to be a great slapper. But that gift doesn't make anyone a great slapper. That comes with the work needed to make all the moving parts of a slapper's swing look effortless.
"It takes a lot of hand-eye coordination," Bramlett explained. "The main thing for me was just seeing it because you're doing so much movement. But I remember when it first, like, clicked, just in front-toss, and I was like, 'I think I've got it.'
"Well of course, I get to live pitching and I'm like, 'I don't have it.'"
It's safe to say she has it now. Miller would like to see Bramlett continue to improve her power game when she does swing away -- to become as much of an overall offensive weapon as someone like Lowe or Watley, the hitters entrenched at the top of Team USA's batting order.
Then again, watching her run, there's something to be said for four-foot triples.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.