April 10th, 2011. Sunday, mid-day.
LSU Senior Brittany Mack is on the mound. Not only is her drop-ball nasty, but she throws three different speeds and they all look the same out of the hand. I was a freshman that year and had heard something about the LSU curse. For some reason in the last 8-10 years, Alabama softball could not win a game on the road in Baton Rouge. However this year, I remember thinking that this team was different. We were ranked number one going into the series and LSU had a rough start to the season.
Rewind to Friday night, and I finally understood as we watched a walk-off homerun for LSU sail over the right-center field fence…in the bottom of the 14th inning (that’s seven extra innings for those who don’t know.) What a heartbreaker.
The next night. Deja Vu. SAME GIRL. 10th inning. Walk-off homerun.
Maybe we can’t win here?
Sunday rolls around and I take a mini batting practice. I don’t really do my normal hitting routine because I haven’t seen a live at-bat in over 5 weeks since I broke my finger. I wouldn’t be hitting this game.
Once the game began, it didn’t take long for us to realize, like the previous two games of the series, this too was going to be another pitcher’s duel. Brittany Mack had her good stuff that day and our team just wasn’t scoring, let alone getting on base. Murph, our head coach, is getting upset, rightfully.
Midway through the game, I hear my coach say, “Ryan, you ready? You’re in.”
Um no. Wait, what?
“Yes,” I hear myself say as a scramble to find my batting gloves.
My heart is racing. Why am I in? Am I even cleared to hit? Should I hit away or slap? What has she even been throwing our lefties?
Ohhh now I understand what they mean when they say her ball bites.
Oh boy. Breathe. Just put it in play.
Let’s just say I became a pretty good pinch hitter throughout my college career, but I had to learn the hard way, and it took more embarrassing instances than I’d like to remember.
Here are my 7 Tips to becoming a great pinch hitter:
- Get Over It
This was going to be the last tip, but honestly, if you don’t take care of this first, then you won’t be able to do the rest. Look, pinch-hitting is hard. You get one chance to see the pitcher. You can sit there and complain that it’s not fair and everyone else gets more opportunities, or you can take advantage of, as Eminem’s famous song calls it, your “one shot.” You get a chance to be the spark plug, the hero, or the Debbie Downer who is already beat before she steps up to the plate. You choose.
- Prepare Long Before Game Day
If you notice that you’re struggling on a certain pitch, then work on it! Not just during practice, but before and/or after your practice time. My junior and senior years I had a few opportunities to lead off the 6th or 7th inning to just get us going. There were other opportunities where I would come in just to advance a runner. I was a great pinch bunter, which makes me laugh, but it was such an important role! Better yet, everyone on my team made me feel that way. How cool is it that I got to come in, put a bunt down, move the runner, trot down to first, get out and get swarmed with a million helmet hits and pats on the back? It was the easiest job in the country!But what made it so easy was that I would ask our former All-American Pitching coach, Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro to pitch to me before or after practice at least twice a week. I would laugh in the box and say “C’mon give me that famous drop ball,” and she would! And I would fail and miss and foul it off, but EVERY pitch I bunted was just another pitch added to my memory bank. I didn’t try to be perfect in practice. I wanted practice to be harder than the game.
- Warm-Up Like You Are Going to Start
I noticed my freshman year that I concentrated a lot more on the days I knew I was starting. I didn’t talk as much in warm-ups. I easily took an extra 20-30 warm-up swings. I even tried to look better on those days making sure my hair was perfect. HAH! Once I got a little older, I really took more pride in my preparation not because I had to, but because it was the right thing to do. Call it superstition, but I really thought the game would know if I cheated my warm- up. And as they always say, you’re one injury away from starting every game and you can’t get that warm-up and all of the previous warm-ups back. Prepare like you’re going to start.
- Take Notes While on the Bench
I was a great student, so I don’t expect everyone to do this, but I can promise you this is a lot easier than school! Most college teams chart their own hitters. This helps for scouting reports or future games if you see the same team in playoffs. For instance, if we played Tennessee twice in the regular season and then saw them again in the World Series, it helped so much to pull up your hitting chart and see how they pitched you, in order to have a plan for the next game.I am a lefty and we used to have at least four lefties in the line-up at all times. The more lefties the better for me because I would chart every hitter we had. By doing this, I was able to pick up patterns a pitcher may have had. For example: Did the pitcher have a tendency to start all lefties off with a screwball? Was her change up was her “go-to?” What did she typically throw with two strikes? It was like getting the answers to the test before I had to take it! If you’re in high school and your team doesn’t chart pitches, then bring a notebook and start writing pitch patterns! You never know what you can figure out for yourself AND your teammates.
This was a tough concept to me at first and I can see how tough it can be to buy into. Now as a coach, I’ve started to use it a lot with my lessons. Let’s keep this very simple so it’s practical! If I notice that all lefties are getting an outside pitch, then I’m going to take the following steps: First, I’ll watch the pitcher perform a pitch, really studying her motion. Then I will close my eyes for a second and picture myself in the box and her on the mound. As if in slow-motion, I will visualize that outside pitch hitting my bat, and then watching it go right up the middle for a single. Then, I will open my eyes and watch the next pitch. Without getting too much into the science of this, and I encourage you to look into this if you’re skeptical, your brain can’t really tell the difference between something your body has actually done and something you have visualized your body doing.Now I’m not saying, skip all your reps at practice and take 300 imaginary swings – haha- but I am saying that in games, really work to put yourself in that box picturing the exact pitcher! It used to help me if a pitcher had a great rise ball. I would actually picture myself in the box tracking a high pitch and laying off of it. Then once I actually got in the game, my previous visualization would help me see it down!
- Be Ready Before Coach Calls Your Name
My freshman year we faced Stanford in Super Regionals. We were up 6-0 or so in the 4th inning, and to be honest, I wasn’t really thinking I would come in that game. I decided to go to the bathroom in the dugout when I heard a knock on the bathroom door.“Um, Ryan, you’re hitting.” I vividly remember zipping my pants up, sprinting out the door, grabbing the bat with no batting gloves, walking to the plate while simultaneously scrambling to tuck my shirt in. Everything we preach about routine and slowing things down and taking a deep breath went right out the window. My hands were shaking, heart racing, and I swung at the first pitch. I hit a tiny dribbler and ended up beating it out. Everyone was so excited, and it happened so fast, I didn’t know what just happened. Another lesson learned. From then on, around the 5th inning, I always had a hunch that I would get to hit soon. So, in order to be overly prepared, I would casually walk to my bag and grab my batting gloves and stick them into my back pocket. I would also make sure a helmet was nearby. Additionally, I have always had a coach’s brain. I knew the girls in the lineup who were 0-2 and didn’t look like they were having a good day. I also knew which players had a shorter leash when it came to performing at the plate. I would pay attention when they were coming up and I would stand at the top of the dugout. I WANTED to hit. And Coach Murphy would always look over and see me there, ready to go, eager to make an impact and get my job done. If he was ever looking for a pinch hitter, it was a no-brainer. As a coach now, I want the girl at the plate who wants to be up. It’s so hard to look in the dugout and see girls pouting that they aren’t playing, or girls having a great time but so unfocused. Challenge yourself to be the player focused and ready to go no matter the circumstances.
- Be Aggressive and Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Pitchers are told to go right after pinch hitters, so get excited! The scary part is, more than likely your first pitch is the best one you’re gonna see! It’s a gamble because if you get out, then your whole at-bat that you’ve been preparing for is over in five seconds. However, if that pitch is right down the middle, you may be getting that winning RBI! Remember, if you’ve prepared properly, taking notes, visualizing, and getting yourself ready to hit, it’ll feel like you’ve already had 4 at-bats! You’re ready for this!And finally, you can do everything right and the odds of getting you out are still higher than you getting on-base! Welcome to softball. But why play the game if you’re afraid to fail? Don’t underestimate what a long at-bat that ends in a strikeout does for your team. Don’t underestimate what a hard line drive caught by a diving center fielder does to start a rally! Even getting out can get your team going. Take pinch-hitting as a challenge, and even a compliment that your coach thinks YOU can get the job done. I’m not sure if any of you watched the MLB World Series this year, but Boston had two HUGE pinch-hit home runs in games they eventually went on to win. Everyone falls in love with the story, so start preparing to be the main role. WHAT I WOULD GIVE TO GO BACK!
As always, telling it like it is,