January 26, 2015

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UM finding other ways besides long ball to generate offense, wins

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Massachusetts freshman outfielder Lindsey Webster hit the first home run at the UMass Softball Complex this season, a 200-foot shot to left-center field in the Minutewomen’s 6-2 victory over Dartmouth in the second game of a double-header Thursday.

There was no doubt the ball was gone when it left Webster’s bat. She took a low and outside pitch from Dartmouth’s Hilary Barker and deposited it in the left-field.

“[The home run] really felt good,” said Webster. “As a team, we’ve really been working on our hitting everyday at practice. I was feeling good. It’s our first home series so I was really excited to play and I was looking to put a good swing on a pitch. It’s my first spring game [at UMass] so it’s really exciting.”

As Webster rounded the bases for her team-leading third home run and met her teammates at home plate for congratulations, several fans may have felt the absence of the long-ball from the UMass offense this season.

“Obviously we haven’t had the easiest of times,” said UMass coach Elaine Sortino.

“We’ve been really struggling [at the plate] … It’s really been hard to figure that out in the last two months. It’s been such a roller-coaster ride.”

Year-after-year, UMass boasts a potent offensive attack that includes a large number of home runs. That’s something that’s not only rare in softball, but sometimes even discouraged. Often times, coaches teach their players to step up in the batter’s box as they swing and try to slap the ball to opposite field and beat out the infielder’s throw for an easy single. That’s not the case for UMass.

“[A good offense] really means a lot,” said Sortino. “It takes the pressure off the pitcher and it takes the pressure off the defense. When you know you can score multiple runs, it’s a very, very important thing. If you don’t have run capability, that makes everybody just a little bit tighter and it keeps feeding off itself and it’s not a good thing.”

In 2010, the Minutewomen hit 58 home runs. The year before, they hit 70. With power-hitters like Sara Reeves, Michelle Libby, Carly Normandin and Samantha Salato in Sortino’s lineups, the Softball Complex saw over 170 balls hit over its fences in the last four seasons. That’s why watching this year’s squad struggle to plate runs is distinctly different from last season. The absence of home runs is something that’s more an exception than a norm.

Early struggles at the plate this year and lack of a true home run hitter have caused a power outage and a significant hole in the UMass offense, specifically run production. At the halfway point of the regular season, the Minutewomen have hit 14 home runs. With 48 games on the schedule, the team is on pace to notch 28 round-trippers, which would be their lowest mark since 2002 (20).

Sortino’s teams aren’t like a typical collegiate softball team. She preaches a strong and confident offense along with solid defense and pitching. UMass players don’t slap-hit as much as other programs, they swing away. Usually, it’s resulted in a powerful and feared offensive barrage. Unfortunately, as Webster’s home run on Wednesday symbolizes, that component is missing this season. The Maroon and White have had to wait around for the offensive struggles to subside and find other ways to win games.

“I think it’s a lot about hitting and our team’s finally doing a lot more of that,” said Webster. “I’m excited to see us progress.”

Without the power from years past, the team doesn’t have any other choice but to keep swinging away.

Michael Wood can be reached at mcwood@student.umass.edu.

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