Stingy pitchers revive `little stick' importance

Softball: Bunting, slap hitting, stealing receive increased attention as hurlers cut down on many teams' scoring chances.

April 25, 1999|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

Northeast coach Marianne Shultz carefully scrolled through the score book and showed a look of disgust after her usually resourceful Eagles stranded 12 runners in a 10-inning, 3-2 loss to Severna Park last week.

"Frustrating," was all Shultz could say, slamming down her clipboard.

With pitching among the elite teams in Anne Arundel seemingly unhittable at times, big innings are out and scratching across runs is in. Executing is simply a must.

"If you're able to get a bunt down, you're one hit away from scoring a run. And in this county, one run can make or break you," said North County coach Brian Love.

Chesapeake coach Dennis Thiele calls them the little sticks -- a slap hit, well-placed bunt or whatever else it takes to get speed on the bases. Those can help offset dominating pitchers such as Arundel's Soraya Grace, Severna Park's Amanda Donaldson, North County's Kellie Evans, Northeast's Stacy Smith and Deana Benner. Donaldson and Evans, both seniors, are already two-time All-Metro players, and Smith made it last spring, as well.

But "little stick" work is only the start. Stealing a base, hitting behind a runner and, most importantly, laying down a sacrifice bunt is the second phase necessary for getting runs.

"When it's your best pitcher vs. their best, you know you're going to have a one- or two-run game and it's going to be low-scoring," said Thiele. "When you can execute the little hits, lay down the bunts -- and do it with precision -- your chances are a lot better."

A survey of some county coaches showed a lot of practice time being spent on bunting.

Glen Burnie coach Bob Broccolino said bunting was a "crucial" part of his Gophers' run to last spring's Class 4A state championship.

This season, with most of last year's starters lost to graduation, Glen Burnie's young nucleus has not always been able to get the bunt down. In a recent three-game span, Broccolino said the Gophers missed out on five possible runs because of not moving runners into scoring position with sacrifice bunts.

"I feel in this county with the pitching so powerful, bunting becomes a big weapon," said Broccolino. "You move a runner into scoring position, and you have two outs to score a run. That puts a lot of pressure on the other team's defense."

Now, his Gophers are feeling the pressure in batting practice. To improve, Broccolino is having each player lay down 20 bunts -- and every miss results in a run up the hill.

"They've been bunting much better," he said.

Now, it's late in a tie game and a coach needs a runner or someone to bunt. Whom does he want at the plate?

Chesapeake leadoff hitter Michelle Cappe got some mention among county coaches, as did North County's Linda Parks. Broadneck catcher Bryn Weller also has shown she can handle the bat and, with 16 steals thus far, can, in effect, turn a single into a double.

But no county player has the slap hit/bunt craft more down to a an exact science than Arundel senior leadoff batter Valerie McDowell.

"She drove us crazy," said Broccolino. "First, we played her in, and she punched it over our head. The next time, we played the third baseman back a couple of steps, and she laid down a perfect bunt."

McDowell is hitting .405 with a .475 on-base percentage relying mostly on slap hits and bunts. Her 16 runs lead the Wildcats.

A natural right-handed hitter, McDowell switched to the left side at age 11 to get the most out of her speed.

"That took a second off getting to first base, and that's the difference between a hit and an out," she said.

During warm-ups, McDowell will try to pick up on an opponent's tendencies: How good an arm does the third baseman have? Where is the fielder positioned?

"That's the advantage of slap hitting," she said. "If the third baseman is way in, you slap it over them. If they're back, you bunt it. And if they're medium, you have a choice. I also check to see where the second baseman is."

After all that, once she's at the plate, she tries to keep it simple.

"I try not to think too much up there. I just want to hit the ball and run as fast as I can," she said. "The first time I'm up is the most important. It sets the pace for the rest of the game, and if I can get on, it gets the team going."

The Wildcats, 11-2 on the season, have been going, indeed. Arundel coach Paul Yannuzzi said it all starts with his leadoff batter.

"Everybody plays in on her, even with two strikes," he said. "She puts enormous pressure on the other team's defense. I know one out of two times Valerie is going to get on, and if we can bunt her around, a run is a distinct possibility."

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