Feb. 28, 2017
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
In softball three is such an important number.
There are three strikes to an out, three outs to a half-inning. There are three outfield sections, there are three outfielders guarding those three sections…and on it goes.
So far in 2017, Georgia Tech softball is finding that three is a very important number.
Hitting No. 3 is where Malea Bell hits. Third base is where Bell plays.
The Kennesaw native and former Kennesaw Mountain High school star, who wears No. 9 (three-squared) has become an offensive force in her third season.
She leads the team in hitting (.340), hits (18), and RBI (12), and is tied for the team lead in home runs (four), total bases (32), multiple-RBI games (three) and longest hitting streak (five games). She fattened those numbers over the weekend in the I-75 Challenge against Omaha, Radford and Illinois, batting .500 (8-for-16), with a homer, four runs scored and a pair of RBI.
“I’m just really seeing the ball well, we’ve had some great coaching and I’ve just taken the opportunities at hand,” Bell said. “I think the biggest difference this year is that I’ve had more opportunities and I’m taking advantage of the opportunities given. I didn’t ever really take advantage of my opportunities. I’m a lot more confident.”
Bell entered 2017 with seven hits, TOTAL, one home run, seven RBI and a .117 batting average in limited exposure — only 60 at-bats, seven fewer than she has right now.
This coming of age hasn’t surprised Yellow Jacket head coach Shelly Hoerner. This is simply Bell showing the form Hoerner saw in the two-time Georgia 6A first-team all-state selection (2011, 2012), the 2012 GACA Player of the Year and 2012 Player of the Year and Region 4 6A Player of the Year in 2012 and 2013, according to the Marietta Daily Journal. This is the player that led KMHS to the state championship in 2012 and 2013, and a school-record 33 wins in 2012.
“That’s why I recruited her,” Hoerner said. “She was a top hitter coming out of high school and I was waiting for her to break out. She’s doing a great job. But she’s doing a great job because she has put in the time to be great.
“She’s been really consistent,” Hoerner added. “That’s a strong testament to her work ethic and how much time she’s put in extra outside of practice. The adjustments she continues to make with (hitting) coach (Rodney DeLong) are pretty impressive. She has a different mentality this year, too. Along with her work ethic, mentality, and, of course, her talent, that’s a key to success.”
“I think opportunity has helped with her mentality,” said DeLong. “She’s trying to use the whole field and is just figuring out that she is really good on the pitch away, other than just the pitch in. She’s really taking advantage of her opportunity.”
Bell used the entire field on Sunday. Following back-to-back homers by the Jackets to start the bottom of the first inning to cut a 3-0 deficit to 3-2, she kept the line moving by roping a ball over the centerfielder’s head and to the wall. Later she’d line out, again, to center. In the fifth, she smacked a ball to right for a sacrifice fly to give the Yellow Jackets a 4-3 lead.
Opportunities have been plentiful for Bell hitting in the third spot, as leadoff hitter Sam Pierannunzi and second-place hitter Jessica Kowalewicz have regularly set the table, allowing her to clean up.
Malea can appreciate the importance of hitting leadoff, that’s where she’s batted most of her career. She even did so for Georgia Tech’s second game of the year, going 2-for-4 with an RBI against Illinois in Puerto Rico.
Still, she’s plenty happy yielding the top spot to the swifter-afoot Pierannunzi.
“I’m not very fast,” she said and smiled. “Batting lead-off is still fun but it’s more fun when there are runners on and you can move those runners or hit them in to score some runs. So I really like batting third.”
Hoerner likes the look of Pierannunzi hitting first and Bell in the three-hole, and won’t argue with the results.
“Sam has been getting on base and Jessie, too,” she said. “We need the consistent hitters in the three and four hole. So that’s a great spot for Malea because she has been so consistent. I look game-by-game right now. I just know she’s consistent so she continues to stay in that spot.”
DeLong believes Bell is going to continue to get better.
“I’d seen where she’s been limited in the past so it’s very good to see her have success,” he said. “It’s just an example of a kid that buys in, wants to work and wants to get better.”
Hoerner feels the same way about Bell on the defensive side. She’s on her third different position at Tech, playing second as a freshman, moving to the outfield last season and now apparently finding a home at third.
“I’ve moved around a lot but that’s what I’m here to do,” Bell said, with a laugh. “Third base is more reaction than what I’m used to but I’ve adjusted pretty well to it and I’m really enjoying third base.”
She’s made life miserable for hitters, as in the first inning Sunday, she made a diving catch, to her right, going completely horizontal and grabbing a line drive in foul territory, then, later in the game, making a running stop moving to her left and also making a nice short-hop pick on a bullet hit to her and turning a 5-4 putout. Defense hasn’t been perfect, however, as a throwing error on a bunt led to a scoring opportunity for the Illini.
Hoerner recognizes that Bell is having some growing pains but feels those are only temporary.
“I think defensively, she’s struggled a little bit on some bunts recently but that’s fixable,” she said. “She’s really done a good job defensively. We talked about it. She’ll fix it because she’s a workaholic.”