May 6, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Winning teams like to talk about the heart of a champion.
No one ever mentions the eye.
There may not be a better eye in the entire ACC than the one of 2013 ACC batting champion Ashley Thomas.
Georgia Tech’s junior shortstop used that eye, as well as her instincts, and an adaptable swing to finish the season with a .420 batting average, the highest in the ACC this season and the fifth-highest season in Yellow Jacket history.
“I’m just so impressed with Ashley,” said Head Coach Sharon Perkins. “She is so unselfish. She’s gotten really good at reading the defense and knowing what she’s comfortable with. If she wants to drop a bunt down and beat it out or if she feels more comfortable slapping or hitting off certain pitchers in certain situations. She’s just really taken control of her game and I’m proud of her and impressed with her.”
Thomas credited her success by making things easy on herself.
“I try to keep it simple and my main goal was to try to stay consistent throughout the year,” she said. “As the leadoff that’s what any team likes to have and it makes it easier on the team as a whole. Basically, my confidence is helped by sticking to one goal.”
She certainly met her goal of consistency. Thomas didn’t go hitless in back-to-back games all season, reached base in all but three games, and had at least one hit in all but six games. Thomas put together hitting streaks of five, 10 and 25 games. The 25-game streak, starting with the team’s second game of the season, saw her get a hit in every game for better than a calendar month (Feb. 8 through March 19), as she hit .417 (37-for-82) with 10 multi-hit games.
While she helped herself, Thomas helped her teammates with her willingness to stand at the plate and take pitches.
“It is not an easy job to lead off every single game, especially when we’re facing pitchers that we’ve never seen. But she really works the count well,” said Perkins. “She sees a lot of pitches and she’s comfortable seeing a lot of pitches. Not everybody is. She definitely has the right mentality and she’s able to have a strong approach at the plate every time.”
Thomas actually got stronger as the season went on. Against the ACC, Thomas hit .491, 70 points higher than the nearest player, Florida State’s Kirstin Austin, and she never hit below .490. Her .576 on-base percentage was 69 points higher than second-place, Chelsea Tate of NC State.
The season was a quantum leap for Thomas, who came in a career .299 hitter and was coming off a sophomore season in which she hit .295, a 10-point dip from her freshman campaign.
She got the hang of hitting leadoff, which she also did in 2012, and put to use lessons learned her freshman year from watching former Yellow Jacket center fielder Christy Jones.
“Christy was a leadoff batter and how smart she was in her at-bats made an impression on me,” said Thomas. “I took away her smart approach and to take every at-bat and learn from every pitch. It has been very helpful for me.”
Perkins expects Thomas to be invaluable on Thursday when the fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets begin defense of their ACC Tournament Championship against No. 4 North Carolina at JoAnne Graf Field, in Tallahassee, Fla., the home of top-seeded Florida State. First pitch is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
The Jackets lost two of three in Chapel Hill back on April 21 and 22.
A match-up with the Tar Heels means facing ace, Lori Spingola, who Tech saw in all three games of their series.
Spingola, whose younger brother, Daniel, plays baseball for Georgia Tech, threw a one-run, four-hit, complete game in the series opener, allowed three runs and four hits in 1 1/3 innings of relief in the nightcap of Sunday’s doubleheader, a Tech 8-5 win, then hurled another complete-game win on Sunday, despite allowing six earned runs and 11 hits.
Perkins believes having seen Spingola all three games and so recently could be advantageous.
“The more you can see a pitcher the more comfortable the players are,” she said. “The more you can look for patterns. The more they can pick things up for an at-bat and feel more comfortable in the box. It’s definitely an advantage.
“We had really good at-bats. They had a really good approach at the plate, we hit the ball really well, so I’m excited to go up against her,” she added. “It’s nice to face a team that you know who’s going to throw. You know what to expect. I know we hit the ball really well last time.”
Thomas certainly did, going 4-for-6 against Spingola in the three games, including a bases-loaded, three-run double to cap Tech’s five-run third inning that keyed an 8-5 win.
Thomas will be expected to set the tone from the first pitch, as she gauges Spingola and whoever might follow, one pitch at a time for as long as it takes.
“She can foul off a lot of pitches, she’s very patient at the plate,” said Perkins. “She takes pitches and really works the count for the sake of the team and allow the rest of the team, especially the lefties, to see what’s working well for that pitcher, what the umpire’s calling, there’s a lot of factors.
“The second time through, third time through, if she wants to jump on something early in the count she’s able to do that and she’s comfortable doing that,” she added. “But it’s definitely not that easy.”
Thomas just makes it look that way.