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Area players get both bat sensations

Four college players from the area are gaining needed experience with wood bats in a pair of summer leagues.

Baseball changes in many ways when played with wood bats.

For one thing, University of Tampa catcher Mike Rabelo said, "You've got these idiot pitchers who think they can throw inside."

That's because pitchers know a ball off the handle of a wood bat likely won't bloop in for a cheap hit like it often does with livelier non-wood bats.

That led to this encounter when Rabelo's Torrington, Conn., team faced Keene, N.H., this summer in the season-opener of the wood bat New England Collegiate Baseball League.

Rabelo faced St. Petersburg Junior College pitcher and former Ridgewood High teammate Tommy MacLane in his first at-bat. MacLane's third pitch drilled Rabelo in the shoulder.

"I spoke to him after the game, and he said he was trying to come inside," Rabelo said, laughing. "I said, "I know, I know.' "

It pays for today's collegiate players to know the wood-bat game if they hope to make baseball their career. The pros use wood.

For hitters, it means strengthening wrists and improving batting eyes because of wood's relatively limited pop. It means learning to go with the pitch. For pitchers, it means using the entire plate rather than pitching away to negate aluminum's power.

"It makes the game more legit," MacLane said. "They're going to get their fair share of hits, but it's an awesome feeling when you go inside and you jam him and the ball dribbles to third base."

There also are short-term benefits for the next college season.

"It's definitely made my hands stronger," said SPJC shortstop Josh Hollingsworth, who played for Thomasville, N.C., in the Coastal Plains League. "And it helps to tone your swing down, to keep a little more control. You have to be a lot smarter hitter. You know you can't pull everything, so you have to use the whole field and take what you can get."

Catcher Anthony Turco said he used a 33-inch, 30-ounce bat for SPJC last season. For West Warwick, R.I., of the NECBL, the dimensions were 33-31.

The NCAA mandated before last season that the maximum length-to-weight numerical difference for non-wood bats be reduced from five to three. The idea was to make the dimensions of non-wood bats more resemble wood and lower the speed at which non-wood bats are swung.

But non-wood bats still have a larger sweet spot, and baseballs fly off non-wood bats at much greater speeds.

"It took me a good two to three weeks to get adjusted to the wood bat," Turco said. "It's a lot different than college baseball. College baseball is like a big run-scoring game. I think this keeps you more focused. It's more of a pitching duel than a big-ol' slugfest."

Rabelo knows the feeling.

"I've had about, shoot, 60 at-bats," said Rabelo, who missed some games with a broken thumb. "If I was using aluminum, I would have had six home runs. I had one off the top of the fence. One was at the track at our place. That's 410 (feet). It went 408 with wood. Those are bombs. It's not just me. It's everybody."

And when you do get one over the fence, "It's absolutely great," said Hollingsworth, who punched one over the 340 sign in leftfield at Edenton, N.C. "It makes you feel a lot better knowing you can do it with a wood and heavier bat."

MacLane said he and Keene's other pitchers sometimes staged home run competitions before regular batting practice.

"It feels like you're swinging a tree trunk," he said.

Which reinforced to MacLane that pitchers don't have to obsess about location when facing wood.

"In college, you come in on a big strong guy and he's going to put you 600 feet," he said. "Here, if you make a mistake, you at least have a chance.

"They might not get good wood on it."