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Softball players tap new power source: home runs

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Fri. March 16, 2012 | Bob Putnam | Email

Softball players tap new power source: home runs

Perhaps it was fitting the hit Palm Harbor University’s Taylor Sabol gave up that ended her bid for a perfect game Thursday night came on a home run.

Armed with better tools and new techniques, hitters are taking over softball, especially when it comes to home runs.

For years, the long ball might as well have been an ancient artifact in softball, a rare find in a game dominated by power pitchers.

There were plenty of pitchers in the county who wielded the most important weapon in the sport — speed. When they were on, they collected strikeouts at a dizzying pace.

But hitters, many now powered by weight lifting regiments, take precisely honed swings that generate lift, using light bats to take their cuts.

The evolution of hitting and the emphasis on power have created some eye-popping numbers this season. Osceola’s Kara Oberer has seven home runs this season. Teammate Haley Brown has five. So does East Lake’s Nicole Szelest. Palm Harbor University’s Samantha McCloskey has four. Six players in the county have three or more home runs, including East Lake’s Sarah Schutz with three. That’s more than baseball, which still is adjusting to new aluminum bats with less pop.

“The numbers in home runs are definitely up this season,” Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said after last week’s Lady Canes Spring Tournament. “That probably has to do with the fact that pitching is a little bit down than it has been in years past.”

Pitchers may not stand as tall on the mound as they once did. Former East Lake standout Alyssa Bache, the last in a long line of county aces, graduated and it seems there are not many to take over as the county’s dominant pitcher.

The Hurricanes might be the only team with softball’s most precious commodity, a rare pitcher who can make opposing hitters rest uneasy the night before a game and can elevate her team single-handedly.

Sabol has lifted PHU to the county’s best record and has thrown plenty of one- and two-hit games. But as Thursday night showed, even she can fall victim to a home run.

For five years those on the mound have had to adapt. Because of mounting safety concerns, the Florida High School Athletic Association decided in 2006 to move the pitching plate 43 feet from home, back from 40.

Florida will be the only state to experiment with the 43-foot modification.

The rule gave hitters more time to react to pitches. Still, titanium arms, not titanium bats, ruled the county after the change.

That has changed. Hitters are now maulers who can tear down the fences. Take McCloskey. The PHU third baseman works in the weight room on a regular basis during the offseason.

“But it’s not just me,” McCloskey said. “The whole team does it. Squats, box jumps, jump rope; we do it all.

“But we also put in so much work in hitting. We’re working off a tee and doing all sorts of other things.”

On Thursday, McCloskey also drove one out of the park, hitting an opposite-field two-run homer to give the Hurricanes some breathing room in a 4-1 victory over East Lake.

And that was not her most impressive homer of the season.

“Every one of Sam’s homers have been legitimate shots over the fence,” PHU coach Chuck Poetter said. “Some aren’t just over the fence. They’re in the trees.”

But McCloskey insists she isn’t swinging for the fences every at-bat.

“I’m just looking to get a good, solid hit,” McCloskey said. “I’m really not looking for a home run.

“But it’s nice when you can get them.”

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