Natasha Watley hit safely 395 times for UCLA--third-highest total in NCAA history--by exploiting the defense. The slap approach may be her most potent weapon in this regard.
Slapping is a hitting technique that relies on speed to beat out a ball put in play. Girls who are taught to slap must be fast runners, bat left-handed and keep the ball on the ground.
A slapper gets a running start out of the batting box--putting pressure on the defense to field it cleanly and get rid of it quickly. Because the batter is already moving when the make contact, they have a better chance to reach first base safely. When I teach it, it is two steps until you make contact, Watley explains. So make sure you time it so you get two steps and hit off of your left foot.
Often times, an exceptionally fast right-handed hitter will be turned around to the left side for the sole purpose of becoming a slapper. That was the case for Watley. I was naturally a righty. When I was 13 or 14 years-old, I switched to the left side and have been there ever since, Watley shared. It is tough to learn at first because its not something that comes natural. By being able to keep doing it, now its second nature for me to go left-handed and weird to go up right-handed.
Slappers are usually found at the top of the lineup as table-setters so the power hitters can bring drive them home. Watley is one of the most successful slappers in the world. At the World Cup of Softball last year, she turned in a .421 batting average with a team-high 10 runs scored. She is currently batting .583 at this years World Cup. She must be doing something right.
Crystl Bustos hit the ball so well, its almost as if she knew what pitch was coming. It turns out, that was exactly the case in a 9-1 United States victory over Venezuela.
It actually didnt get very high. It was a little bit flat. But it always helps knowing whats coming, joked Bustos. They dont think I understand Spanish but I understood what pitch was coming because the coach yelled it to the pitcher. If you watch in the camera my feet set up a certain way to help bring a pitch that I want, then I switch my feet before the pitcher throws the pitch.
In the beginning, it didnt look good for the U.S. Jennie Ritter promptly gave up her first earned run in international play with a lead-off solo homerun to Maria Soto to start the game. I think it was just jitters, Ritter explained, I missed on a curveball. I think I was just trying to be perfect.
Ritter settled down, striking out seven in three scoreless innings and was eager to keep pitching. I felt good from the second inning on. It just took a while to get the rhythm going. After that I felt real comfortable and ready to throw some more.
Bustos wasnt the only U.S. offensive threat. Natasha Watley went two for three hitting a triple in both the second and forth innings. Kelly Kretschman also hammered a homerun to the opposite field.
Venezuela did not threaten after the lead-off homerun--managing to earn one run on four hits. With a commanding lead, Alicia Hollowell took over the mound in the fifth inning to solidify the win. She closed the game quickly by striking out two of the three batters she faced.
United States will take on China, ranked fourth in the world, tomorrow at 7:00pm.
Side note: After the game, I found myself in line for the bathroom behind Kelly Kretschman and Laura Berg. Kretschman mentioned she received fifteen text messages during the game, most congratulating her on her homerun. They also pointed out a picture hanging on the wall near by of the 1996 national team, more specifically, how awesome Bergs long bangs looked in it. It was cool to see the players behind the scenes and share a laugh with them.
Natasha Watley brings unparalleled speed to the national team. She is always a threat on the base paths, recording 158 career stolen bases in college--good enough to rank in the NCAA all-time top ten base stealers.
When asked what makes a great base stealer, Watley replied, "Just knowing and reading the situation you are in. It is important to know the pitcher, know how good the catcher's arm is and know who is covering the bag. Knowing if the second baseman or shortstop is covering can make a difference in how you slide. Those are different things you want to pay attention to."
Watley is no stranger to success. She broke the Olympic record for stolen bases with five in nine games at the 2004 Athens games. Having an aggressive mentality and getting a good jump off the base has helped her achieve her accomplishments. "Your first three steps are the most important," she describes. "I don't think I leave early, but I'd rather be caught leaving early than be caught being out at the bag."
The former Bruin led UCLA to a Women's College World Series title in 2003 and also won the Honda Award as the Nation's Top Collegiate Female Athlete. Watley looks to continue her base-swiping prowess tomorrow at the World Cup of Softball and jump start Team USA's winning ways.