UMass' ever-improving power: defense
During a game last week against Boston University, Massachusetts junior Sarah Reeves dug in at the plate to lead off the bottom of the second in what was still a scoreless tie. But as she readied herself with her back to her dugout on the first-base side, it became apparent that Minutewomen coach Elaine Sortino was tardy getting out to her turf in the third-base coach's box. A few steps out of the dugout, Sortino tried to call timeout, but the umpire didn't recognize it and Reeves wasn't about to risk missing a pitch by stepping out until he did.
The pitch came in and Reeves sent it back out with more pace, skimming a line drive over the fence in the left-center gap for an opposite-field home run and the game's first run.
Now, pardon a brief digression on the scenic route to a point.
Reeves is as proficient at the craft of hitting as anyone I've seen the past few seasons. That's not to say she has Stacie Chambers' power or Katie Cochran's wrists -- she may not be the most talented hitter on her own team. But while so many players look like assembly line automatons rushing through at-bats, she more often than not approaches her trips like an artisan craftsman. She's the definition of a hitter who can't be defined by batting average.
She led the team in walks a season ago and slugged .535 with a team-high 10 home runs. She's right there again, leading the team with 18 walks and slugging .553 with eight home runs. Samantha Salato may break the program's single-season home run record. Carly Normandin is hitting better than .400 with power. And Whitney Mollica has been a fixture in the heart of the order for four seasons. But if she's not the flashiest, Reeves is always just there.
She understands which pitches she can do something with and drives them. It's "see the ball; hit the ball," but with an understanding of all the possible permutations of the swing.
"You're always just trying to be aggressive up there," Reeves said. "[You're] just trying to find a ball on the plate, and if it's on there, swing as hard as you can and try not to get in the hole. So just trying to look inside or out -- wherever it is, just taking it left side if it's outside; if it's inside, driving it middle or left field."
And yet for all that, the difference between a home run and nothing at all in the game against BU was an umpire's selective hearing. That's what hitting is, no matter how talented you are or how well you understand what it is you're supposed to do up there. Granted, it flows both ways, and sometimes the soft pop-ups drop in for hits while the gap-bound line drives are intercepted by an unmoving infielder's glove. But as the luster of .300 averages and .400 on-base percentages attest, the odds are with the pitcher. The house usually wins.
Which is a really, really circuitous route to suggesting that while Massachusetts has its standard stellar offense -- and still has Brandice Balschmiter in the circle -- the difference for this team come the postseason could be in the area over which it has far more control.
Because if there's a lot that looks familiar about this team, a defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in fielding percentage is a departure from the recent norm.
Three years ago, the Minutewomen committed 90 errors in 57 games and posted a cringe-worthy .948 fielding percentage. The starting infield alone committed 65 errors and it might have been worse if not for first baseman Amanda Morin, a gifted defensive player who saved plenty of potentially errant throws. To be fair, that team came within a game of the Women's College World Series, but just how many breaks it caught became more apparent in regional losses at home the next two seasons against Oklahoma and Stanford, respectively.
But gradually, even as those seasons unfolded, the defense changed. The fielding percentage improved to .957 two seasons ago and .967 last season. Reeves took over at first and kept it a strength. Mollica turned the errors of eagerness of her freshman year into just 11 errors in her past 88 games at the hot corner, dating back to the beginning of last season. Freshman second baseman Kyllie Magill has committed just four errors and leads the team with 66 assists, including a nifty backhand flip to first after ranging far to her left against the Terriers.
And between Normandin's ability to track down anything in the gap and senior Davina Hernandez showing off an Ichiro-like arm against Boston University, the outfield more than holds its own.
Perhaps it adds up to the final piece of the puzzle to get the team back to the super regionals or beyond.
"Defense wins championships; that's what Jess Merchant, our infield coach, always stresses," Reeves said. "So as long as we keep playing good defense -- I mean, offense in the games, sometimes you're going to struggle against good pitchers and you're only going to get maybe one or two baserunners. But if you keep playing defense, you're going to be in the game always.
"That's definitely a big thing this year -- that we're trying to reduce our errors. I think we've been pretty successful so far."
Late note: Proving there is still plenty of offense in Amherst, Salato claimed USA Softball Player of the Week honors. Tuesday's announcement came after a week in which Salato went 8-for-14 -- impressive enough on it's own but eye-popping considering seven of the eight hits were home runs.