Notebook: Devon Wallace is mighty good
Most softball and baseball fans know the story of Mighty Casey, the subject of Ernest Thayer's famous poem who left the fans in Mudville bereft of joy when he struck out with two outs and Flynn on third base and Blake on second.
In hindsight, even if he insisted on showmanship, Casey's biggest mistake was taking a big cut with an 0-2 count. Any disciplined hitter knows that's likely to be a waste pitch.
Then again, Casey coaxing a nine-pitch walk lacks a certain lyrical quality.
Arkansas junior Devon Wallace may never be the subject of ballads. Little girls aren't likely to grow up dreaming of the day they break the SEC career record she is almost sure to break with a season to spare. But with more walks already than all but a couple of dozen players in NCAA history and more career extra-base hits than strikeouts, she is a slugger for the modern age, an All-American combination of plate discipline and run production.
Wallace is the model player for a team that pays little attention to the statistics that used to define a player's worth.
"We don't really look at batting average at all," Arkansas coach Mike Larabee said. "I think it's very, very misleading. What we focus on is OPS, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Those are the things that we talk to our players about all the time. That's what we believe in, hitting for a high slugging percentage and getting on base. Those are the most important stats.
"We call batting average Satan; we don't even let our kids talk about it."
With more than half of her junior season still to play, Wallace has drawn 163 career walks. That not only leads all active players by a sizable margin -- Arizona State senior Alix Johnson is more than 30 walks behind in second -- it leads all but a handful of players in the history of the sport. With three more walks, Wallace will tie for 25th all time. With 21 more, she will match former Georgia All-American Alisa Goler for the most in SEC history.
The walks aren't the reason she's a great hitter, but they are a manifestation of the discipline and approach that make her one. It was a difficult week for Arkansas this past week, as a loss against Tulsa preceded a series loss against Tennessee. But the Razorbacks did take one game off the Lady Vols, Tennessee's third loss in 27 games. A big reason why was that Wallace didn't miss one of the few pitches she saw in the series, hitting a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh (take that, Casey) to tie a game that her team eventually won later in the inning.
But if you want to talk about patience, forget about waiting out a pitch to hit from any of the aces who populate the SEC. Try learning how to throw again while opportunities to earn a college scholarship slip away by the day.
When Wallace was in eighth grade, the natural lefty found herself unable to throw. Not injured, just unable, her arm as unwilling to complete an act it had done a thousand times before as your leg might be to take a step when it goes to sleep. Except that unlike a leg that quickly returns to service, minus some pins and needles, her arm didn't respond. She said the only explanation she and her family could get was that it was somehow neurologically related to her epilepsy.
Eventually, as weeks and months became a year and more, she came to the conclusion that what was lost was lost and that she needed to learn how to throw right-handed instead. Even then, she thought more than once about quitting the sport, her joy having been replaced by the frustration and fear born of an inability to do something once second nature.
But hitting, where she still batted from the left side and experienced no problems, offered some reprieve.
"Well, if I'm not going to be able to throw, I might as well focus all of my attention on this," Wallace recalled of her thought process. "And if I become a really good hitter, then maybe that will kind of overshadow the weaknesses that I do have on the field."
Still, a player who looked like a beginner every time she threw the ball did not generate a great deal of recruiting buzz. So when Wallace broke her thumb shortly before an important recruiting showcase tournament in Houston during her junior year in high school, she emailed Larabee and told him she would find a way to play if he still made the trip he had planned. The cast in which she was originally placed immobilized her wrist, but she went back to the doctor and came away with a new version that left the thumb immobilized and the wrist free. She just needed to hit.
"She put on a show," Larabee said. "She still had the cast on, and she was basically hitting lasers all over the field."
There is some irony that in that moment someone who would go on to be one of the most disciplined hitters in the game, heir apparent in a line that includes the likes of former Cal All-American Valerie Arioto, just gripped it and ripped it, as the saying goes. Walks were not going to make the impression she wanted.
Wallace didn't realize exactly how close she now is to the all-time leaders in walks, but the revelation made sense to her.
"I guess it doesn't really surprise me," she said. "I feel like I'm kind of a really picky hitter. At times I could probably afford to be more aggressive and I know that's something Coach Larabee has been trying to work with me on this year. Walks are great, getting on base is great, but there's times you want to be looking to hit, like with runners in scoring position. Don't go chasing bad pitches but maybe be more aggressive in those situations."
Not that Larabee will complain too much about a leadoff hitter with home run power and a .571 career OBP. You can win a lot of games with those.
Which is why there is plenty of joy in Fayetteville whenever Wallace walks to first.
Players of the week
Aimee Creger, Tulsa: A coach from another school in Conference USA last week asked if I lived in Tulsa, which perhaps suggests it is a frequent flyer in this space (and, well, this makes two appearances this week). But is a week like Creger put together supposed to go unnoticed? First, she struck out 13 batters in a 6-1 win against Arkansas in which she kept Wallace from doing much damage. Then she struck out 20 batters in 9 2/3 innings across two appearances against Marshall. Her 12.1 strikeouts per seven innings so far this season would have been good enough to lead the country in 2013.
Christina Hamilton, Louisiana-Lafayette: She already has the unofficial crown as softball's most stylish pitcher (sporting these spectacles in the circle), but there is substance with the style. As presumed ace Jordan Wallace continues to battle control issues, Hamilton has stepped to the forefront. This past weekend that meant starting both ends of Saturday's doubleheader against Oklahoma, and she responded by allowing just five hits and one earned run in 14 innings. Some of her 8-1 record and 1.36 ERA is the product of favorable assignments, but Saturday showed she can hold her own against anyone.
Alex Hugo, Georgia: It's gilding the lily a bit to say Hugo hit two walk-off home runs in a three-game sweep of Mississippi State, given that both were walk-offs only in that they provided the final margin in run-rule wins, but it was a heck of a weekend for the Kansas transfer who is making herself at home in the SEC. In three wins against the Bulldogs and a fourth against Tennessee State, she hit .538 (7-for-13) with three home runs and seven RBIs. In fact, the only home run she hit that didn't end a game was the most important, the lone run in a 1-0 win against Mississippi State.
Sara Moulton, Minnesota: Granted, Minnesota and its ace will face more challenging weekends than the one they spent at a tournament in Conway, S.C., but missing bats is missing bats. And Moulton missed a lot of bats in four appearances. The senior started the weekend with 15 strikeouts in a six-inning, one-hit stint against Georgia State, meaning she recorded all but three outs in the start by strikeout. She wasn't done. In three more appearances, she struck out 25 more batters in 14 innings and never did allow an earned run. She finished with three wins and a save for her trouble.
Tina Schulz, Lamar: Sure, Schulz earned honors as the Southland Conference's hitter of the week. The senior didn't have to face herself. Or maybe it's the other way around for the conference's pitcher of the week. Schulz swept the awards after doing a lot of everything for the Cardinals. At the plate, she totaled three home runs and eight RBIs, with two of the home runs and five of the RBIs coming in a two-game sweep of Nicholls State that moved Lamar to 4-1 in league play. She also picked up a win in the circle against Nicholls, one of her two complete-game wins.