Slap-hitting trend strikes Oklahoma City
OKLAHOMA CITY The slap is the new black. Everyone's doing it.
If you haven't seen too much fastpitch softball, you may be surprised by the feet all aflutter in the batter's box. Hitters begin their 60-foot trek to first base while the pitch is still on the way. Don't be alarmed by their early exit. It's an intentional element of the slap sensation, which is sweeping across college softball.
Maybe Earl Weaver could wait for the three-run homer, but the teams in Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series have to be a little more proactive.
In softball, pitches find the strike zone at speeds approaching 70 mph from an ace toeing the rubber a mere 43 feet away. The hitter has only about 0.45 seconds to react to the pitch. Think about reacting to that heat, and you're probably already toast. So it's no surprise that offensive strategy in softball has had to evolve to combat this nasty reality.
Slap hitting has many variations and not-so-distant cousins, but no matter which variety a hitter employs slap, chop, push, drag or running bunt fast feet are absolutely the most potent weapon in the short game that is offense in fastpitch softball. Most teams have slappers in the leadoff and No. 2 spots in the lineup, as well as one or two at the tail end of the order. Mike Candrea's Arizona Wildcats the trailblazers of this craft have a whopping five slappers in the lineup.
Some skeptics are quick to condemn this small-ball approach to scoring runs. But for those who dig the dinger, there's top-ranked Michigan. Jessica Merchant, the Wolverines slugging shortstop, hit 21 home runs on her way to the WCWS and proves that the game has not abandoned the long ball, altogether. But before begging for the old-fashioned, don't-boogie-till-it's-batted base hits, consider the numbers produced by the scrappy slappers.
In the WCWS championship series that starts tonight, the Wolverines will face UCLA's speedy center fielder Tara Henry, who tallied three of the seven runs the Bruins scored in their first three games in Oklahoma City. Henry was not the only slap specialist to make it to the final eight.
Arizona catalyst Caitlin Lowe is a multi-dimensional left-handed slapper, who needs only 2.6 seconds to get from home to first. She was batting an unreal .527 heading into the World Series. Lindsay Schutzler and Sarah Fekete, the two frequent slappers atop Tennessee's lineup, are both hitting over .400, and Cal versatile slapper Lindsay James rode a six-game hitting streak into the Series. In this day and age of stifling pitching prowess, you've got to get on any way you can.
Even Team USA slugger and former UCLA Bruin Stacey Nuveman appreciates the contribution of the slap. The former college player of the year, who led the nation in home runs (31) and RBI (91) in 1999, considers the slap an essential part of the game.
"Baseball purists might not like it, but as far as I'm concerned, slapping is softball," Nuveman said. "It's as much a part of softball as is the underhand pitching motion. It has its place in our game and I personally think it's exciting. Slapping is unique and different, but it's undeniably consistent and effective. Baseball purists might not like, it, but they can't argue that it works."
The basic idea behind the slap is just to hit it where they ain't (Wee Willie Keeler would approve of the retro fashion) and wreak havoc on the defense in the process. To begin the assault, a slap hitter will show bunt while the pitcher is still in her delivery. This seeks to disturb the pitcher's psyche while making the infielders dance. The slap puts the batter in a triple-threat (and then some) position. She is able to pull it back and dink it in the holes she's just created, pull it back and swing away for the backsides of the shallow-shading outfielders or actually leave it out there and lay a bunt down. All the while, these slappers are on the left side of the box and already creeping toward the refuge of first base.
The threat of a slap or running bunt increases once one of these speedsters is already on first, taunting the defense with her wheels and making middle infielders choose between cheating to cover the bag or holding their ground for the impending slap.
''There is nothing more difficult for a second baseman or a shortstop than trying to cover the slap with a runner on base," Nuveman said. "Nothing exposes a defense more than this situation. There needs to be all kinds of communication and reaction. If she steals, who's covering second? If she bunts, who has first? There are so many variables for the defense to consider and there are so many ways for the offense to take advantage of those 60-foot basepaths."
With the bases only 60 feet apart, softball is what people call a three-second game. That is, it takes about only three seconds or less to advance to the next bag (baseball is about a four-second game). This detail is what makes the slap and the short game in general so essential to offensive production in fastpitch softball. Slapping, running bunts and stealing bases are creative vehicles to augment that three-second window it takes a baserunner to reach safely.
Slappers are no longer just struggling swingers looking for a way to get on, or speedsters hoping a cheap chopper will get them aboard. When executed, the slap is nearly impossible to defend. Whether the outfielders are brought in as far as the infield dirt, a third baseman moves in to a reach-out-and-touch-the-batter position (a strategy that makes dentists across the land very happy), or the second baseman creeps in next to the hurler, these crafty gals have an answer for everything.
So when tuning into the WCWS championship series this week, keep an eye on the slap-happy style that will dominate the diamond. Learn to appreciate the special trade that makes fastpitch softball unique and embrace a shrewd short game that makes even scratch golfers jealous.
Mary Buckheit, a former college softball player, is covering the Women's College World Series for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Mary.J.Buckheit@ESPN3.com