Follow the Leadoff

May 18, 2012

Jon Cooper, Sting Daily –

During Georgia Tech’s march to its third ACC Tournament in four years, Yellow Jackets’ hitters looked so relaxed and confident at the plate. They looked as if they knew what pitch was coming even before the opposing pitcher threw it.

Chances are they might have.

Some of that, obviously, had to do with facing pitchers Melanie Mitchell of Virginia, Lacey Waldrop of Florida State and Jasmin Harrell during the regular season. But having seen a pitcher doesn’t necessarily help on game day.

What did and does help is leadoff hitter Ashley Thomas.

The sophomore shortstop’s patience in watching pitches and her tenacity in spoiling potential out-pitches so as to see another and another, has made her a human scouting report of that day’s pitcher.

“As a leadoff you want to see a lot of pitches so you can go back and help your teammates out,” said Thomas, who hit .300 (3-for-10) in the ACC Championships, with a .363 on-base percentage. “Starting off by fouling back almost everything [Mitchell] had except the change-up, it think it helped out the team a lot. It helped us jump on her quicker.”

They couldn’t have jumped on her much quicker, as three batters after Thomas grounded out to second, Tech had a 2-0 lead, courtesy of a Kate Kuzma single and an Alysha Rudnik homer.

Head Coach Sharon Perkins was over the moon about Thomas’ at-bat against Mitchell (as well as vs. Waldrop and Harrell) and doesn’t gauge Thomas’ at-bats solely on success reaching base.

“I don’t know how many pitches she fouled off (against Mitchell), but when she has an at-bat like that, regardless of the outcome, it kind of sets your mind straight and you know we’re all over that pitcher,” said Perkins. “It’s fighting it and fighting the ball off until we get a better one.

“It’s setting the tone,” she added. “She gets in there, she doesn’t get in there and chase the first pitch. She works well when she’s behind in the count and is able to foul balls off. She gets to see a lot of pitches and that helps the team overall. If you have somebody in there that can work the count, they can take pitches, they can make the pitcher throw a lot of pitches and allow the rest of the team to see the pitcher throw, that helps us all.”

Thomas’ teammates know what kind of advantage she provides.

“The more you get to see a pitcher, the better your chances are of hitting her,” said two-time defending ACC Player of the Year, National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-Southeast Region Second-Teamer and current two-hole hitter Kelsi Weseman. “So Ashley, the first at-bat of the game, seeing like seven or eight pitches at least has really been beneficial to the rest of the team. We get more chances to see her before we get in the box and that’s just a great way to start off the game.”

“I think it sets a great tone,” agreed Hope Rush, the 2012 ACC Tournament MVP and fellow NFCA All-Southeast Region Second Teamer. “It’s real important for us to get it all started and get on base, but knowing that she saw that many pitches in that first at-bat, It brings an air of confidence to the team when that happens.”

That patience is something Thomas doesn’t even think about anymore.

“I definitely think it’s part of my job,” she said. “I see it as if I have a good first at-bat, it can bring everybody else confidence for their at-bats. It’s more of knowing the pitcher and finding out what she has and relaying it to the team.

“I guess I am a little bit of a tone-setter,” she reluctantly admitted. “Whenever the good things do happen, like fouling off all those pitches, it gets everyone excited.”

Thomas is looking forward to getting everyone excited this weekend, starting today, when the ACC Champs battle Sun Belt Conference Tournament Champion South Alabama.

The Jaguars may be as hot as the Yellow Jackets, having won four straight games, including knocking off No. 12 Louisiana-Lafayette (which beat Tech twice at home during the season), 3-1, in the Sun Belt Championship Game. USA rides the arm of Hannah Campbell, who allowed two runs (only one earned run) in 22 innings over the four tournament games, a 0.32 ERA.

On the other side of the bracket are Regional host, SEC Champion and No. 2 overall seed, Alabama and Tennessee-Martin, the Ohio Valley Conference regular season and Tournament champion.

Thomas believes that the Jackets could have an advantage having already seen Alabama ace Jackie Traina, and Tennessee-Martin ace Chelsea Jones. They didn’t beat Traina, losing a 12-9 slugfest, but scored nine runs (four earned) and had 13 hits off her, while they beat Jones in eight innings, hammering out 11 hits and putting up seven earned runs.

“It helps us out a lot seeing a team already,” said Thomas. “After we see a pitcher, the second time we do real well off the pitcher. We’re ready for them.”

Along those same lines Tech may have another edge in that neither Alabama nor UTM saw Hope Rush this season. The Crimson Tide saw Rush in 2009 and roughed her up, scoring five earned runs in an inning-plus.

Perkins insists that’s ancient history.

“It’s been a while and she’s a much different pitcher this year,” she said. “She has gotten tougher throughout the season. So they’ll see a very different Hope.”

But first up is South Alabama, who none of the Jackets are looking past.

Thomas, meanwhile, eagerly awaits the opportunity to get a look at Campbell — a long look.

First pitch is at 4:30 p.m. ET (3:30 CT), but late-arrivals to the game shouldn’t worry. With Ashley Thomas leading off, they’re not likely to miss too much action.

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