Making the multiple pitch

Softball: With six pitches from which to pick, hurlers have a big hand in the game.

Softball

High School Sports

March 19, 2004|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

Some just slowly return to the dugout, mumbling and shaking their heads, while others may toss a batting helmet first.

And then there are the batters who take it almost gracefully, like it's expected: Strike 3.

You try hitting North County junior Beth Mullins' changeup or a 58 mph heater from North Carroll's Jessica Smith. Go ahead and take a whack at whatever Glenelg's Stephanie Sims decides to send up to the plate. Heck, she has six pitches to choose from.

"It can be fun watching when it's your pitcher out there on the mound," said Chesapeake-AA coach Don Ellenberger. "But when it's your kid at the plate, sometimes you really feel for them."

Pitchers have long dominated fast-pitch softball and this year's promising and plentiful crop in the metro area is a mixed lot of young and old.

So just how do all these throwers get to the point where they can make a softball drop, rise, bend or float -- putting it exactly where they want, whenever they want?

"Like with everything else, to be successful, they have to like it and really want to do it," said Jack Crandell, a windmill pitching expert who has run clinics since 1982.

"It takes a lot of hard work -- pitching three or four times a week, 300 to 400 pitches. And it takes a dedicated dad or catcher to have around."

Mullins, who went 20-2 with a 0.81 ERA in leading the No. 1 Knights to their second straight Class 4A title last spring, started out with a fastball when she was 11 years old. She now has a screwball, curve and that mesmerizing changeup that's the envy of many other pitchers because she isn't afraid to use it -- often welcomes it -- on a 3-2 count.

She plays highly-competitive select ball in the summer, and goes to pitching clinics two or three days a week during the winter months (45 minutes to an hour per session) and throws with her father other times.

"Pitching is a lot like hitting," said Mullins, who has worked with Crandell. "With hitting, it can take 5,000 swings to correct a bad habit. To learn a new pitch, it could take a couple of thousand pitches to really master it and have complete command over it. It's a lot of hard work and dedication and you definitely miss out on things."

Sims, a second-team All-Metro pick last season for the Gladiators, said the changeup is her problem pitch. So much so, she has gone to four different grips trying to find an answer.

With much the same routine as Mullins, she's comfortable throwing her fastball, drop, curve, screwball and rise with the changeup coming along.

"I like the variety because when something isn't working, there's plenty of alternatives," said Sims, who has a makeshift mound in her backyard to get in extra throws with her father, John. "We'll use all six pitches in the first couple innings, see what's working and not use the others. That way, I always have at least three and sometimes four to work with."

With Sims, father does know best. John can watch his daughter throw during warm-ups and determine if she's on or off. He says she tends to be high with her pitches when she's off and "any of a number of little things can throw her timing off."

A look up in the stands often provides the quick fix.

"It's to the point now where I can give her a little signal -- maybe just standing sideways to let her know she's not turning sideways enough -- and she's like `Oh, yeah, OK,' " said John.

So just how do batters try to deal with all those possible pitches coming their way?

Chesapeake All-Metro senior shortstop Tracey Dahlen will get to face Mullins, Severna Park's All-Metro sophomore Kaila Jenkins and Northeast standout Ashley Gray, among others, this spring. Hitting .519 last season, she proved she was up to most challenges.

"I just know I have to be smart with the count. I can't get myself in a hole because the pitchers are so good, it's hard to get out of it," she said. "I try to think ahead on what a pitcher might throw me and when I can get my best pitch to hit. You just do your best."

After the grips are just right, the mechanics are down pat, the velocity is there (Crandell says 57 to 60 mph is considered exceptional at the high school level) and the location is pinpointed, there's one last thing a pitcher must have: focus.

"You have to stay level-headed and can't let anything bother you," said Mullins, who uses breathing techniques to help her stay relaxed on the mound. "You can never change the past whether you make a bad pitch or a teammate makes an error. So you can't dwell on anything, just be sure to reset before you throw your next pitch."

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