The state all softball hitters yearn for this time of year (and it's not Oklahoma)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Meghan Gregg knows well the place every softball hitter hopes to visit this time of year. Not ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, home of the Women's College World Series. Not yet. She has been there, too, as a freshman with the University of Tennessee, but Oklahoma City is the final stop. The more immediate destination isn't on a map.
It doesn't offer the same roar of the crowd heard in Oklahoma City. Noise recedes, in fact, an almost serene silence settling over visitors.
For a hitter, the place to be as the NCAA tournament begins is in the zone.
Some know it as the flow, the groove or simply a hot streak. No matter the name it goes by, it is a mental state of maximum performance and minimum distraction. It can be difficult to find, but it is not unfamiliar territory for someone like the newly crowned SEC Player of the Year.
"It's just when you kind of forget about everything, and you're in that one state of mind," Gregg said. "It's just you, the pitcher and the ball. That's actually when the game is the funnest ... when all the distractions are gone and you're just in that flow. It's a really good feeling."
Its existence -- and good luck finding the hitter who doubts that it does -- is a reminder that hitting is as much a mental workout as anything else.
And a reminder of how finely tuned the mind must remain to do it well.
The adage that softball, like baseball, is a game of failure for hitters is not, statistically speaking, entirely true at the college level. Entering the final weekend before the NCAA tournament field was announced, 50 Division I batters had on-base percentages of at least .500. (The same is true to a slightly lesser extent in college baseball, in which seven players had on-base percentages of .500 or better.) Because of the relatively short season and the greater disparity of talent across so many programs, college hitters can with some regularity put up numbers -- .400 batting averages, .900 slugging percentages -- that are unheard of in the pro baseball world that shaped the adages.
Yet while failure is not the statistically probable outcome of any given plate appearance for a small handful of players, it remains the normal state of existence for most, even many of the best.
"We're in a game where if you succeed three out of 10 times, you are considered successful," said LSU's Bailey Landry, who enters the postseason with a .431 batting average. "Pitchers are great, especially at this level, so you've got to know that sometimes they're going to make a great pitch and going to win. It's just how hard of a fight you put up.
"As long as you're having a quality at-bat and being a hard out, that's what makes you a great hitter. Hits will come."
By the time they reach Division I, even some of the most competitive people in their peer group have experienced a considerable amount of failure. Imagine an elite violinist having to accept that she might miss six out of every 10 notes. That can wear on a person. A first-team all-SEC selection, Mississippi State's Caroline Seitz nonetheless began this season with just one hit in her first 21 at-bats. To keep her from falling into the mental abyss, she and her dad just kept trading the phrase "best third baseman in America," the words both a bit of gallows humor and a reminder to focus on playing defense as well as she could while waiting out the slump.
The cold start to the season eventually broke, and by the time a weekend series at Georgia arrived in April, Seitz had rediscovered the zone. She totaled seven hits in 10 at-bats during those three games. She hit three home runs and drove in 14 runs.
"I think I was locked into the zone finally, not worried about anything but hitting the ball and hitting the ball hard," Seitz said. "I work on extension a lot -- I say extension is life. If I can get my hands through the ball to extension, I'm going to hit the ball hard. Whether it's to somebody or over the fence, I'm going to hit it hard. I think that weekend I finally trusted myself."
Much has been made this spring of the Milwaukee Brewers' Eric Thames, a journeyman who became a prodigious home run hitter this season -- it was the first reference Alabama coach Patrick Murphy went to when asked about the zone. One Twitter meme imposed a beach ball in place of the baseball as it left the pitcher's hand prior to a Thames home run. But the more important dimension may be time. A softball hitter reacts to a pitch that reaches home plate in barely four-tenths of a second. So while time doesn't markedly slow down in the zone, even the perception that it does is a reflection of how comfortable a hitter is in that moment.
It sounds really bad, but it's not so much that the ball gets bigger, but it's almost that my head gets bigger.Caroline Seitz
"I don't think you see the ball bigger," Seitz said. "You just see it, maybe, slower. It's really not even so much of a vision thing for me, it's my mentality. I come up to the plate knowing I'm going to get a hit, and I get a hit. It sounds really bad, but it's not so much that the ball gets bigger, but it's almost that my head gets bigger.
"I can tell myself I can do it, so I'm going to do it."
Cause and effect are difficult to separate when it comes to a hitter in the zone, the mechanical detail of something like the extension in Seitz's swing intertwined with mental state. She may have physical advantages over other hitters -- quicker wrists, stronger legs, better eyes. She puts in the practice time to refine the motion of the swing. She wouldn't be an elite hitter without those assets. It wouldn't matter what zone she was in without them. But as she said, when it came to the Georgia series, she also trusted herself with those tools.
Sometimes that can lead to home runs. Other times to three outs on balls struck hard but right at fielders. Similarly, a player can go 2-for-3 without good contact, without anyone but those in attendance knowing a double barely left the infield. That happened to Arkansas senior Nicole Schroeder not so long ago. But so did a stretch in which she hit 12 home runs in the season's first month, locked squarely in the zone.
It isn't always the result that defines the state.
"You know when you're in it because no outside things control your mind and nothing bothers you," Schroeder said. "The way I notice it is the umpire can call an awful pitch and it doesn't even faze me. I'm like 'Whatever, that happens.'
"But when you're outside the zone I feel like you let outside things affect your mind."
Way outside the zone is where Texas A&M's Tori Vidales found herself late in the season. A proven all-conference run producer in seasons past, she went much of April with barely a hit, let alone a home run.
"We kind of let her, for a long time, try to find her own way because she is so good," Texas A&M coach Jo Evans said. "The kid is such a good hitter and a really confident athlete. So for a long time, when she wasn't quite herself, we just thought, 'She's got it.' Then it got to a point where Tori started feeling bad about herself, which is really unusual -- I've never seen it in her three years. That's when it was time to take a step back."
The way I notice it is the umpire can call an awful pitch and it doesn't even faze me. I'm like 'Whatever, that happens.'Nicole Schroeder
They changed her practice routine in the week leading up to a series against Tennessee. She worked one-on-one with Aggies assistant coach Gerry Glasco, long known for his work with hitters. And she sat down with Evans. They talked a little softball but mostly, as Evans said, "how she's doing and where she's at and what she's doing in her life." All with the goal of getting her to relax.
Vidales hit four home runs in the next series against Tennessee. She hit another in the SEC tournament and came close to a second, just about the only Aggies player to make good contact against Alabama ace Alexis Osorio.
Cause and effect? Again, it's difficult to know with any certainty.
"It's a weird fine line," Alabama's Murphy said. "You can't go too far because you don't want them to get really mental. So I just try and pick my spots, and I don't say much, just one or two sentences. And I try and keep it positive. I learned that the hard way. You can see their body language and the way they carry themselves if they're not feeling good about themselves."
Little wonder that more and more teams, certainly those with the means of the SEC, incorporate sports psychology into their training. Instead of talking it over with Murphy or one of his assistant coaches, Alabama players have opportunities each week to speak to Dr. Bhrett McCabe, a Birmingham-area sports psychologist who played college baseball at LSU.
But the fortunate few -- Hailey Decker for Nebraska in a 2014 regional (5-for-8, 4 HR, 8 RBIs in two games), Megan Langenfeld for UCLA in the 2010 World Series (12-for-17, 4 HR, 9 RBIs in five games) -- find themselves in the zone at the perfect time of year. And a whole lot of hitters are hoping to visit this weekend.
"I think that's the only place you really get that feeling," Schroeder said of the softball diamond. "I don't think there is anything in the world like it. I think you can ask any hitter and they'll respond like that. It's like an unworldly feeling."