Casey Stangel: Three crucial innings

Casey Stangel is a junior pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. She was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho in 2012 and has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

The first, the fourth and the seventh; they change a game. Every inning of a game is important, and must be filled with focus and effort. But these three innings are so huge to me and are what I consider game-changers.

The first

When you run out onto the field, it is time to make a statement. The other team gets its first look at you and they evaluate you. It is crucial to leave no doubt in the opponent’s mind that they have a challenge ahead. When I throw the first pitch, it has to pop, and from that moment forward, it’s on. A goal for me is to always get the momentum on our side in the first inning. When you go 1-2-3 through their hitters, it leaves a mark. The top of a lineup is typically the “igniters,” they are the people who are the strongest and really know how to get the job done. When you shut them down, it puts on a lot of pressure. On the offensive side of things, the first inning is when it really counts. When you are loud and get base runners on, it creates an energy and momentum that is critical in big games. When your team is taking some strong hacks and putting people on base in the first inning, it puts a lot of pressure on the opposing side.

The fourth

By now, you are more familiar with the other team’s hitters and their pitcher. In this inning, it is time to take all of the information you have gathered and hit the gas. I have found that this is where teams get lazy, because you’re halfway through and people are getting tired. The fourth inning is where I really tell myself to focus and work hard at spinning and spotting the ball on the mound. It is a point in the game when teams can steal back momentum, and that is the last thing I want to happen. Really pushing yourself, and upping your focus from this moment in the game forward, is extremely important.

The seventh

When you are training outside of games, and you are on your last sprints of the day, that is when you need to think seventh inning. You’re tired, emotions are all over the place, and the game is on the line. This is closing time, and it requires everything you have physically and mentally. As an example, in Game 2 of the Women’s College World Series, Alabama was up 8-1 in the seventh on Oklahoma. The second Jackie Traina stepped on the mound she needed to focus and put OU away. I felt like she did something that so many players do in situations like this -- she relaxed. In games like that, you cannot let up or lose focus until the last out of the seventh inning. Oklahoma showed its strong hitting skills and came back with five runs in the seventh. Opposite of Alabama, Oklahoma approached the seventh correctly and went all-out. Luckily for Traina, she got refocused and executed, leading her team to an 8-6 victory. Even players as amazing as Traina have these moments, and that is why I believe it is so important to practice them in every game.

If you are playing an exposure game that nobody is keeping score of, or if you are in the World Series in Oklahoma City, you have to play all-out. Seven innings of pure competing with the other team and never letting up. Have fun, be crazy with your team in the dugout; but when it comes time to do your job, make sure you do it with focus. Take every inning seriously – especially the first, fourth and seventh -- and you will never be disappointed.

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog – on the lessons she learned from her state championship loss – here.