March 9, 2012
By Jon Cooper
– Pinch-hitting may be the hardest job in softball.
One minute you’re sitting in the dugout watching the game. The next you’re standing at the plate, bat in hand, in a spot that could ultimately decide a game. Then it’s back to sitting and watching.
It’s not a role that’s for everybody. It hadn’t been one for Danielle Dike.
But it is now, and the junior from Scottsville, Va., has embraced it and made a habit of coming through in it.
“I actually have really enjoyed pinch-hitting,” said Dike, who is hitting .429 (3-for-7) in the role. “It gives me confidence to know that the coaches have confidence in me coming off the bench and having just my one at-bat for the game. Being successful off somebody like [Alabama righty] Jackie Traina, or [lefty Keilani] Ricketts from Oklahoma, it’s really kind of thrilling. You get a hit and it’s like, ‘Wow. I can do this.’ It’s a big confidence booster.”
Having her as an ace-in-the-hole is a confidence booster for the entire team.
“I think she’s meant a lot to the team,” said third baseman Kelsi Weseman. “To know there’s somebody coming off the bench that can get that clutch hit whenever you really need it is great and she’s done that. I don’t now how many clutch hits she’s had that have been game-changers for us.”
Heading into Saturday’s ACC opener against Virginia at Mewborn Field, that would be three, as all three of Dike’s pinch-hits have either given the Yellow Jackets the lead or contributed to a rally that has.
Her first came on the second day of the season. The two-out, two-run double in the second inning against Cal Poly on Feb. 11 broke a scoreless tie and opened the floodgates to a five-run inning in the 8-5 win that made Tech 3-0.
The following weekend she did it again and again. On Feb. 17, Dike delivered a two-out, two-run double in the third inning against Alabama All-American Jackie Traina that gave the Jackets a 6-5 lead in the hard-fought 12-9 loss. Then, two days later she blasted a three-run, pinch-hit homer, this time with one out, to give Tech a 5-4 lead over Auburn, although Tech would eventually lose the game.
Coming off the bench swinging — and hitting — isn’t as easy as she’s made it look. She credits preparation and the advice of her teammates already in the game as contributing factors.
“The hardest part is having a plan at the plate. You only get to see the pitcher one time so you don’t know what she’s been throwing. But I ask Kate Kuzma and I ask Alysha Rudnik and all the other righties,” she said, “I know against Auburn, Alysha Rudnik and Kate Kuzma were both on the plate so I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go up and I’m going to be on the plate.’ But I think the hardest part is having a plan of what I’m going to do once I’m up there.
“I pay attention to our lineup and to the situation,” she added. “So I know if there are two outs and we have bases loaded and we have a slapper coming up I know I need to have my helmet ready and have my batting gloves on just in case. Every inning I’m going out and I’m swinging a bat, making sure I stay warm and keep loose.”
Dike has proved that she can hit in a starting role as well. She had one of two Tech hits on Feb. 17 against Ricketts, a two-time All-American, in the 1-0 win, then, on March 6, with Weseman out of the lineup, she stepped in and went a combined 4-for-6, with a walk and run scored in the double-header sweep of Western Carolina.
“D.D.” went 1-for-3 in the first game, with a walk, yet her groundout in the fourth may have been her most important at-bat, as it moved runner Hayley Downs from second to third. Downs would score on an infield hit to tie the game at 2-2 as part of a two-run rally which gave the Jackets the lead for good in the 4-2 win. In the nightcap, Dike had her first three-hit game of the year, going 3-for-4, and scoring a run. By the way, defensively, she was flawless in seven opportunities in the two games.
Weseman expects to be back in the lineup today and tomorrow — the teams play a double-header, today, with games at 1 and 3 p.m., then conclude the series Sunday with a 1 p.m. start), but Dike is eager to play against the Cavaliers in whatever role she’s called upon, as playing UVA means seeing a lot of familiar faces in the opposing dugout.
“Some of them I’ve played in travel ball and some of them I just met in college. I always look forward to playing UVA and Virginia Tech,” she said. “It would be the same thing for any Georgia girl if they went out of state. But I’m really excited to play them this year. I met some of the players from UVA this past summer and we talked about softball and the different programs. I’m really excited to play them knowing the things that I know now.”
Dike and the entire team will see red when looking over at the blue-and-orange-clad Cavaliers. That dates back to last year’s ACC Tournament, when the top-seeded Jackets were limited to four hits by Cavs’ righty Melanie Mitchell in a 6-0 loss that eliminated them from the ACC Tournament and ended their quest for a Tournament three-peat.
“I know Coach Perkins is going to say something about that and quite honestly, it’s fired me up,” she admitted. “Knowing that they beat us the last time, we’re all going into these games thinking, ‘They are not beating us on our field ever again.'”
Count on Dike to do whatever it takes.