STARKVILLE — Most people have had the thought, at one time or another.
“I could hit a softball.”
It’s true: If it’s pitched slowly enough, you probably could make contact. Someone who fails to connect with the slowest of underhanded lobs is probably either drunk or not confident enough in their ability to utter that sentence in the first place.
But those who watch fast-pitch softball at the collegiate level and tell themselves “that looks easy” — and believe me, people do — are far from correct. Most people cannot, in fact, crack a home run off a pitch crackling with speed and wobbling with spin.
How do I know that? Well, on Friday, I got to find it out firsthand.
Mississippi State softball invited us media types to Nusz Park for an hourlong batting practice session before its media day. Four of us were foolhardy enough to accept.
Before we started hitting, MSU had offered us the choice of any helmet on the team’s rack. I resolved to grab one without a player’s number on the back. No. 44? Senior catcher Jackie McKenna might miss that one. No. 33? I’ll leave that one for MSU star Mia Davidson, though given her record-setting career in Starkville, it might have been good luck.
I chose an unmarked helmet, stuffing it over my glasses and reminding myself why baseball and softball players prefer to wear contacts. I wielded a 34-inch, 24-ounce bat from the bucket manager Charlie Latham provided.
And soon, I found myself clambering into the left-handed batter’s box and staring down former MSU pitcher Alyssa Loza, assigned the easy task of taking down an out-of-shape, 5-foot-7 guy who hasn’t played competitive baseball since Little League, if that even counts.
Loza fired the first two pitches past me, each pitch drawing a feeble swing that felt minutes too late. I couldn’t even tell you what she was throwing, other than strikes.
Then the third pitch. Man, that third pitch. I took it on the outside corner, and I knew.
“That’s three,” I admitted weakly to Latham, catching Loza for the afternoon.
Latham laughed and told Loza what I’d said. I stepped out of the box, shaking my head.
Then I stepped back in and, by God, actually made contact. I hit one soft pop-up to the left side of the batting cage, a third baseman’s dream. I fouled another pitch off to the left.
By the time I grounded a ball toward the middle, I was feeling pretty good. I imagine that one as a hit, though in reality a second baseman worth her salt might have thrown me out by 10 feet.
And that mediocre performance might have been the best of any of the four of us against Loza, though again, that’s not saying much.
For the rest of the hour, I alternated between the change-up cage run by head coach Samantha Ricketts and the decidedly less fun machine operated by manager Parker Gray. One of our number, herself a former fast-pitch player in high school, had no luck against the rise balls, drop balls and screwballs Gray’s cage threw at her.
Those pitches came in between 65 and 70 miles per hour — from a closer distance than baseball’s standard 60 feet, 6 inches. Good luck.
It took me at least 10 swings in Gray’s cage to make a remarkably simple adjustment: swing earlier. Once I did that, I was able to make contact, although I was mostly fouling pitches off as I started to get tired.
But when I remembered how I was actually supposed to swing and follow through, wondrous results followed. I stepped forward with my right foot on three straight swings, producing the best — and perhaps only — solid contact — I made all afternoon.
The third one felt like it would have been a home run outside at Nusz Park had it not been far too cold for MSU to subject us to those conditions. Realistically, outfielder Brylie St. Clair probably runs it down in medium-depth left center. But I was happy, and I left the cage, resolved to quit while I was ahead.
I started the day in Ricketts’ cage, swinging well ahead of the 45 mph change-ups her machine tossed me before catching up. Seemingly every swing, I dribbled a weak ground ball into the net on the right side. (Apparently, you’re supposed to practice this stuff at least once in the past six years if you want to actually be good at it.)
Later, I tested out a cricket bat on Ricketts’ machine. Its odd shape — flat on one side and imbued with a V-shaped ridge on the other — encourages hitters to turn their wrists around when they swing in order to make contact on the flat side. Naturally, I kept forgetting to do that, although it didn’t matter much. I probably swung and missed 65 percent of the time. After finally hitting a ball over Ricketts’ head, I stepped out of the cage.
Still, I’m just thankful I wasn’t showing my skills — or lack thereof — in the presence of the Mississippi State players. Five of them huddled behind a cage toward the end of the hour, watching assistant director of communications Brian Ogden take swings in Gray’s cage.
Senior Chloe Malau’ulu, juniors Kenley Hawk and Aspen Wesley and sophomore Addison Purvis looked on. Davidson shouted advice as Ogden swung and missed: “Chop wood!”
“Carry water!” Malau’ulu added.
Whatever its precise meaning, their assistance paid off as Ogden soon got the hang of Gray’s machine. I looked at Davidson, suddenly glad I hadn’t taken her helmet.
I might have tried to play the hero in Ogden’s place if not for a blistering thumb I’d developed over the course of my dozens of swings. All of us seemed to have similar injuries, and it kept me out of action for the final 15 minutes or so.
But not before I stepped back into the box against Alyssa Loza, unsure what I was trying to accomplish. I swung and missed badly at the first two pitches, my thumb afire. Latham told me I’d swung right over the ball both times; I had no idea. I took the third pitch low and away.
On the last pitch Loza threw me, I chopped the softball into the ground on the left side. It would have been fielded easily by any sure-handed shortstop. But at that point, I no longer cared.
Small victories, right?
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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