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May 22, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Everyone can relate to the towering home run. Purists appreciate the single through the infield and the double that shoots the gap in the outfield.
Softball also has a more subtle batting approach. The slap is a sort of hybrid between a drag bunt and an into-the-dirt grounder. It is utilized almost exclusively by left-handed batters, who hit from the first-base side of the box. It is designed to give hitters a running start to first, allowing them to beat out infield hits before fielders can throw them out.
The University of Alabama has two slappers - leadoff hitter Kayla Braud and Jennifer Fenton - at the top of its batting order. Jazlyn Lunceford, who hits lower in the order, is also able to slap, and Ryan Iamurri gives UA coach Patrick Murphy a slap option as a pinch hitter.
The keys to the slap are footwork and bat control. The idea is to bounce the ball off the dirt to the left side of the infield so that it either reaches the fielder too late for the batter to be thrown out, or actually bounces over the third baseman's head into short left field.
"Slapping is something that's not overpowering. You're not trying to kill it," Braud said. "You're trying to hit it to the right spot.
"The goal is to (have the bat swing) on a plane and hit the top of the ball and get a nice hop. You don't want to hit it hard, just nice and smooth. It's an art, really."
Slappers tend to carry high batting averages - Fenton is batting a team-high .381, with Braud not far behind at .351 - because they get the running head start to reach safely.
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy wants his slappers to be what he calls triple threats: hitters who can slap, bunt or hit away in the normal batting fashion.
"I think it's just such a weapon strategically," he said. "There's so many things you can do. You can steal and protect the runner (with the slap approach and swing). You can slap and run. You can bunt and run. You can hit away or hit and run. There's so many things that make a defense think that a lefty slapper, a short-game person, can do that just a regular lefty hitter can't do."
And there's more than one way to slap a softball.
"There are many kinds of slaps you can do for different situations," Fenton said. "There's the hard slap, where you just try to hit it as hard as you can and get it on the ground. The normal slap, where you're trying to get a high bounce, is where you're just trying to hit it on top of the ball. The soft slap is where you're literally just trying to get it between the pitcher and third base, right in the gap, that little hole there."
Slap hitting calls for great precision.
"It's a finesse thing," Braud said. "It's like taking a toupee off the head, like you want to hit the top of the ball. If you hit the middle (of the ball), it's going to be an out because you're going to hit it right at somebody."
Slapping is also handy for moving runners over in bunt situations. A foul bunt with two strikes results in an out - a foul slap is treated by rule as a foul ball, keeping the batter alive to try again.
"You can foul off the pitches and stay in there and, hopefully, get a good one and get a single," Murphy said.
Murphy began to incorporate slap hitters into his lineup in a big way after the 1999 NCAA regional in Los Angeles, where Alabama made its first national championship tournament appearance. UA played two games, losing both. Murphy consulted that summer with Arizona coach Mike Candrea, who was also the U.S. Olympic team coach, telling Candrea that he was looking for his big hitters to generate the three-run home run to break games open. Candrea told him that such home runs are hard to come by in the postseason.
Ever since, Murphy has recruited speedy lefties, but of a certain type.
"I would rather have a lefty that has a good swing and speed and we can help make her a slapper," Murphy said, "than I would a true slapper who has to learn to hit away. That's harder, I think."
Such was the case with Fenton when she was recruited to Alabama out of Kennesaw, Ga.
"In summer ball and high school I was really just a hitter and a bunter," she said. "I did a little bit of slapping, but when I got here Coach Murphy really wanted me to be a triple threat - to be able to bunt, slap and hit. It really helped me out, because if my hitting isn't doing as well I can try bunting or slapping. If the defense is playing back, I can slap it or bunt it.
"A lot of times, they don't know where to play us (on defense), and the bounces, sometimes if it's really high they just can't do anything. I think third basemen, they're not our biggest fans."
Bill Plummer, author of the book "Best of the Best" on the top women's fastpitch softball players of all time, has worked the Women's College World Series 23 times in some capacity or other. He has seen slapping take an up-and-down turn in popularity over the years in the college ranks.
"Slapping started around the 1980s, and I noticed it more as the years went by," Plummer said. "In recent years, however, I have noticed less and less slappers. I don't know if it's in decline, because it depends on the coach and their philosophy toward slap hitting, but today's hitters are better and coaches certainly don't want to give up an at-bat with the slapper just advancing a runner."
Murphy hasn't abandoned the power game to accommodate his slappers, with Alabama ranked second nationally in home runs with 92. But UA's coach believes the slappers become more important later in the season.
"Definitely now, in the postseason, you need to have balance," Murphy said. "It's crucially important in the postseason to have some kind of short game just to get on base, to make contact, make things happen."
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224