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True Grit

May 25, 2010

by Jon Cooper
ramblinwreck.com

One at-bat doesn’t usually provide enough insight into a player to allow for an accurate judgment.

But Kate Kuzma’s seventh-inning at-bat in Sunday afternoon’s 4-3 extra-inning elimination-game loss to Oregon was an exception and spoke volumes about her as a hitter, a player and a leader.

With the Jackets trailing 3-1, two outs remaining in their season, but with the tying runs in scoring position, Kuzma worked the count on Ducks’ freshman Jessica Moore, spoiled several pitches, then, finally getting a fastball up, took it back up the middle and into center field, making the score 3-2.

The hit in that situation showed tremendous poise, not to mention timing, as it capped off her first three-hit day of the season, and patience – Kuzma led the team, seeing more than six pitches per at-bat – while her taking second on the Ducks’ sloppy cut-off showed great presence of mind.

That kind of clutch hitting might not have been expected based solely on Kuzma’s .239 batting average but, on closer inspection of the team’s stats, would be right in character, as her average jumped nearly 40 points, to .277 when hitting with two outs.

Kuzma, who was stranded at third with the potential winning run, has become a master of coming up big and in doing the little things, like moving runners over, frequently sacrificing herself to do it. It was a facet of the game in which no one in the ACC was better, but for her was just part of her duties.

“I’m very much a team player,” said Kuzma, a second-team All-ACC performer, who tied for the conference lead with 17 sacrifice bunts and had 21 of the team’s 42 sacrifice hits this season, including all three in the four NCAA Regional games. “One of my roles on the team being second batter, was to move the runners whether on a sacrifice bunt or just trying to get it on the infield somewhere.”

While sacrificing for the team was easy, getting used to seeing the batter in front of her, Jen Yee, intentionally walked so many times to get to her, was not. It required a major mental adjustment.

“Earlier in the season, I know I struggled with it. It kills your confidence a bit,” she admitted. “But I worked on it and was like, ‘Yee is an awesome hitter. She’s the best hitter in the country.’ So it really shouldn’t be a confidence blow at all because you’re batting second behind her. It became, ‘It’s awesome that I’m hitting second, they have confidence in me to move her over. They’re still putting me there every game, so I have to keep doing my job.'”

She did her job well enough that the Jackets finished 26-5 with Kuzma in the second slot.

Teams soon began to find out about the “Be careful what you ask for” aspect in walking Yee to get to Kuzma. Florida State learned the hard way in the ACC Championship Game. In the second inning of a scoreless game, with two out and a runner at second, the Seminoles intentionally walked Yee. Kuzma foiled their strategy by depositing a 1-0 pitch over the centerfield wall, for a 3-0 lead in the eventual 8-4 triumph.

Her teammates were happy to see Kuzma go long after a season spent primarily playing small ball.

“To see Kate jump on that pitch and just crush the ball as she did, it was a no-doubter, it was great,” said junior pitcher Kristen Adkins. “Kate’s been great this entire season. She’s done an awesome job of moving runners and sacrificing herself for the better of the team. She just does a good job whether it’s behind the plate or at the plate.”

The former was another area somewhat overlooked in Tech’s success.

Kuzma’s cool and ability to push the right buttons and keep the young staff on an even keel was an important facet in the success of freshman Hope Rush, the ascension of sophomore Jessica Coan and the consistency of Adkins.

“I think for me, it’s very nice to have three pitchers that throw multiple pitches and that each one has a specific pitch, so it’s a lot easier to master,” said Kuzma, who also put in some valued time in left field (Tech was 16-3 with her in left). “It’s also interesting because their attitudes are very different and it’s knowing whether or not I need to make them laugh or need to go out there and tell them to get focused.

“I think this staff has a lot of different pitches,” she continued. “Hope Rush brings a lot of pitches. She basically throws every pitch and also off-speed off those pitches. So she’s just an all-around amazing pitcher with that. Then you also have Kristen Adkins, who throws a little bit slower so that’s going to mess up timing when you have Hope and then bring in Kristen like we did in the [ACC] championship game. Jessica Coan throws hard and she throws a lot of screwballs and a circle. She’s a good mix with Kristen. Kristen is an up-and-down pitcher, Jessica Coan’s a left-and-right pitcher and Hope Rush is all in one.”

Kuzma feels that the personality the team showed and its ability to bounce back with so many different heroes will come in handy next year when the team begins the “Post-Yee era.”

“I think we were so used to Jen Yee, if we were down by one run it was like a given that Jen Yee was going to hit a home run to get us back in the game or win the game,” she said. “I think it’s giving us as a team a reason to step up. Behind me, Kelsi Weseman does a great job of moving runners around. [Kristine] Priebe [had] double-digits with home runs, Danielle Dike, who only [played] like the past month was almost up to eight home runs. So the whole batting order is out to get every pitcher. I like the phrase, ‘Not depending on the scoreboard, depending on the situation.'”

Following 2010’s 51-win season, that situation should get a whole lot better once 2011 comes around.

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