April 28, 2013
By Jon Cooper
It’s not uncommon to hear an athlete credit a little voice inside him or her for making a big play.
Georgia Tech center fielder Hayley Downs is one such athlete.
Watch the junior from Grayson, Ga., the next time she’s standing at the plate or on first or second base and you’ll swear there’s something at work — a conversation going on to which the rest of the world is not privy. You would be a lot closer to the truth than you’d think.
Downs has found listening to her instincts has gone a long way in either slowing herself down or speeding herself up to fit the situation.
It’s worked, as heading into Sunday’s series finale against Florida State, Downs was hitting .348, third on the team, and had hit in 11 of the team’s last 14 games — her seven-game hitting streak and seven-game streak of getting on base were snapped in the second game Saturday. She also sported a .387 on-base percentage and .375 slugging percentage, fifth and sixth on the team.
Her batting average and on-base percentage are career bests and her slugging is 2/100ths of a point off her career high, all set her freshman campaign, and all three are over 100 points better than her sophomore season.
Downs attributes the breath-taking improvement to taking a breath.
“It seems like a really simple fix, but honestly, I’ve just added a little breath right before I step into the batter’s box,” she said. “It’s slowing down the pitch, slowing down every situation. It sounds kind of silly but it really has been what has made the difference for me at the plate.”
Head Coach Sharon Perkins has noticed the difference.
“Hayley has improved tremendously this season,” said Perkins. “She has proven to have touch on her bunts as well as put her slaps on the ground or in the outfield.”
Once Downs gets on base, she’s found a different way to manipulate game- speed to put situations in her favor.
“That’s kind of the opposite. I speed everything up,” she said. “Me and Ashley Thomas have this joke, when we steal a base, we pretend we’re like going insane and we’re screaming. I’m not really sure what it is, but it really helps, just being crazy in your head. You just know you’re going to be safe.”
Call her crazy, but also call effective, as Downs has successfully stolen 13 bases in 14 attempts, a 92.9 percent efficiency, in the top 10 in the ACC in both categories.
Some of the publicity that might normally come with such improvement, especially regarding batting average, has been lost, however, as Downs doesn’t have enough at-bats to qualify for the conference batting lead, where she’d rank fifth. But she’s willing to sacrifice at-bats for the good of the team.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” she said. “I’m not a power hitter. So if I come up with the bases loaded, sometimes, [Coach Perkins] is going to need a big hit so she’ll sub me out. That’s fine. I’m not going to hit a home run. We need a power hitter in that situation so I’ll gladly take my spot back in the dugout.”
That willingness to sacrifice her plate appearances has been apparent in Down’s willingness to sacrifice her plate appearances, as she leads the ACC with 10 sacrifice bunts.
“It’s a role that I need to take ownership of because we have such a power-hitting team,” she said. “I am obviously not a power hitter so I don’t think I should be the one trying to go up there getting RBIs. I don’t think that’s my role and I shouldn’t try to make it my role. It’s my job to move Ashley Thomas over so ‘Rud’ can hit her in. My favorite thing to do is to sacrifice and if I’m safe then that’s a bonus. But I love having the role of sacrificing an out to move my runners along.”
Downs, who batted ninth much of the season was moved to second in the order seven games ago. She credits watching former Jacket Kate Kuzma for inspiring her to accept the role of a No. 2 hitter. While there are differences in their approaches Downs found a lot to emulate.
“Kate had some power. She could hit a home run,” she said. “But the fact that she was unselfish enough to just lay the bunt down, I think that speaks a lot to the type of teammate she was and the type of teammate everybody needs on their team. You have to be unselfish. It doesn’t matter who scores as long as somebody scores. Seeing Kate as somebody who could get the RBI but got the sacrifice down because that’s what we needed, that was a great thing to watch being an underclassman.”
Downs has been as great to watch defensively, as she came into the week having been perfect in the field. The zero came off the ‘E’ column this week, as she committed her first error of the season on Wednesday against Kennesaw State, then a second in the second game Saturday against Florida State. But she’s not sweating it even if she doesn’t like having to live with it.
“An outfielder should never make an error. We should be perfect,” she said. “That’s what we strive to do.
“I’m not big into over-thinking things. If something happens it happens,” she added. “I’m not usually one to let stuff affect me and I’m not very superstitious at all with anything. So I don’t have any cool theories or superstitions. I just kind of do what I do. If I make a mistake, I just won’t make it again.”