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The art of "slapping" in softball

The sight would appear foreign to many baseball or softball traditionalists: a hitter running from the back of the batter's box to the front as the pitcher delivers the ball.

The sight would appear foreign to many baseball or softball traditionalists: a hitter running from the back of the batter's box to the front as the pitcher delivers the ball.

But in softball, the technique, called slap-hitting or "slapping," has become common from the Little League to the NCAA Division I level.

Slapping evolved beginning in the 1980s as a way for fast players to utilize their speed and take advantage of the short distance (60 feet) between bases by batting from the left side of the plate. Proper mechanics require that the hitter choke up on the bat, cross her left (back) foot over her right (front) foot, and slap the ball away from the defense.

"The idea is to get the ball down and beat the throw to first," Downingtown West coach J.C. Carroll explained. ". . . They'll beat the ball into the ground and get a big hop, or they'll try to get the ball up the third-base line so it's a long throw. Or, if girls get proficient at it, they'll just try to hit a line drive somewhere."

At the college level, most teams have one or two slappers at the top of the lineup and one at the bottom. But because slapping is difficult to learn, the trend is less widespread at the high school level.

Downingtown East coach Mike Morgan estimated that a little more than half the teams the Cougars have faced this season have featured at least one slapper in their lineup. His team includes junior slapper Kristen Owens, a former pitcher who began toying with slapping after an injury-plagued freshman season.

Now, Owens is entrenched as the Cougars' No. 2 hitter. Morgan tasks his first slapper in years with getting on base and moving runners along.

The natural lefthander slaps in about half of her at-bats and bunts or swings away in the other half, Morgan said.

"I haven't had a lefthanded hitter that was willing to do that. They all think they can hit home runs," he said. Owens, he added, "was really receptive to the idea."

Besides speed, Owens has a quality that is a must for a good slapper: the courage to run toward a pitch that is traveling as fast as 65 m.p.h. Often, pitchers try to throw either high and inside or low and away where the ball is hardest to reach.

The strategy is designed to "stress the defense," Carroll said, so every team now practices slap defense.

Typically, the first baseman remains at normal depth while the other three infielders play in. Outfielders also play shallow, sometimes as far in as the infield.

West slowed Owens in an 11-3 win last Friday by playing its shortstop and second baseman in line with the pitcher. So the cat-and-mouse game continues: Morgan said Owens' next step is to learn a drag bunt down the first-base line.

Carroll, however, represents the group of coaches still not sold on the idea.

The West coach teaches traditional hitting over slapping because, he said, high schoolers struggle to make proper contact - they tend to fade toward first base rather than pitcher because of both a fear of getting hit and a desire to get a better start.

Two of the Whippets' current outfielders, juniors Allison Milligan and Brianna Tredway, learned slapping on their travel teams before Carroll converted them back into traditional hitters.

Tredway said she saw college players on TV and players at last summer's under-16 national championships slap with great success. Despite being a natural righthander and a consistent .300 hitter, she decided to become a lefty slapper.

The experiment ended when, after too many groundouts led to an average of less than .300, she returned to practicing righthanded hitting in her backyard.

"I was just killing it," Tredway said. "I think slapping on the left side helped me see the ball better from the right side."

At West's next game against Coatesville, she hit a triple and two doubles batting righthanded.

"You're never slapping again," Carroll told her.