In the first day of this year’s Region 5-7A softball tournament, Forsyth County’s teams were having no problems getting runs across the plate.
All of that started with the first players to step into the batter’s box. For Forsyth Central’s Ansley Clark, West Forsyth’s Grace Mangan and North Forsyth’s Ashleigh Grace, that was certainly true, with each of them notching three hits on Monday.
“She gets us rolling,” North coach Jim Cahill said of Grace. “McKayla (Cothran) does a great job right behind her setting the table for our big hitters. We're lucky that we have a lot of those girls. We have a lot of girls that could lead off for us.”
Playing leadoff has its responsibilities, though, and requires a different approach to the game than other parts of the lineup do. Managing that top spot in the lineup as player or as a coach can make a big difference in how effective a team’s offense is.
Cahill may have plenty of good options for that role, but he didn’t have any doubt as to who his leadoff hitter would be to start the season, with Grace having stayed in that position for the entirety of this year. A good part of that is because of her ability, but maintaining a level of comfort is another.
“It's just what I'm used to,” Grace said. “I've always hit leadoff for my travel team as well. That's where I'm comfortable and I love the feeling of getting everything started and just doing my job of getting on base, and not having to worry about, ‘Oh, I have to get runs in.’ I can just do my job and get on base, and other people work me around the bases.”
Obviously, one of the most coveted traits that coaches look for at the top of the order is speed, but simply being fast isn’t the only thing that makes a leadoff hitter effective, as Central coach Paul Cromie has seen with Ansley Clark.
“I want somebody who's got a great eye,” Cromie said. “The leadoff mentality is somebody that's going to do whatever they have to do to get on base, whether that's draw a walk, whether it's seeing where the defense is playing and putting down a bunt, whether it's hitting the ball in the gap, (getting a) hard slap. There's a lot of things that go into a good leadoff hitter, but first and foremost is that discipline.
“(Ansley) has that, and when she's on, I don't think there's a better leadoff hitter around. I really don’t.”
And sometimes, having that leadoff mentality means being unselfish. Those hitters need to understand what’s working and what isn’t, and perhaps drop a bunt instead of hitting a more exciting extra-base hit to the gap. While Grace has had plenty of those kinds of hits, she likes not having the amount of pressure that hitters in the middle of the order can have.
“I think if you're further down the lineup you're more trying ti get the runs in and get RBIs,” Grace said. “For me, I just know that if I get on base, I can trust the hitters behind me to get me in, and if I can move myself around the bases, then they can hit me in and score.”
And while it might be the practice of some coaches to change the hitter at the top of the lineup at time to change things up if their team is struggling, Cahill finds that consistency is the better option when his team comes together at the start of the season.
“They play with different people all summer but I try to make them feel comfortable about who's batting behind them and in front of them,” Cahill said. “If someone behind them's an aggressive hitter or likes to take a lot of pitches, it helps with our baserunning, too.”