A couple of weeks ago at a local softball field, a batter hit a line drive straight at a middle school defender.
Eighth-grader Rachel Hull didn’t get her glove up in position in time and was struck in the head by the softball.
Hull, who is playing Alice in a local “Wonderland” production, admitted she has been having more trouble than usual in remembering her lines.
“I’ve never been nervous, but ever since the accident I’ve been getting more nervous,” she told The News recently. “I’m scared I’m going to forget my lines.”
Injuries have always been a part of sports, but local coaches say the chance of being hurt in softball has gone up in recent years.
Balls are jumping off the bat faster than ever, the coaches noted.
The product description for Easton’s new softball bat says, “The new Synergy Speed Fastpitch Bat puts sheer hitting power into your hands.” At $270, the bat promises faster swing speed and a wider “sweet spot,” the area on the bat where optimal power is delivered.
The manufacturers spend a lot of time and money researching how to make balls go faster and farther, said Surry Central Coach Glenn Craddock. Technology makes batters with average power able to reach the outfield fences and makes power hitters dangerous to infielders, he said.
Combine that with a change in pitching mounds, and infielders are in harm’s way more than ever.
This is the first year where the mound must be three feet farther from home plate, noted East Surry Coach Derrick Hill.
The mound was 40 feet from home before. If a team had a dominant pitcher, that short of a distance didn’t give batters much of a chance, he said.
With the mound 43 feet away, the offense has a better look at the pitch and is more likely to put the ball in play, said Craddock.
That extra distance also means batters are more aggressive. Instead of just trying to slap the ball, hitters can swing for the fences because they see the pitch better.
Knowing the change was coming this year, Hill said East Surry moved the mound back last season, so his team has had more time to get used to the change.
Some thought the rule change would mean fewer injuries to pitchers because they are farther away from the plate. However, the greater speed of the batted balls takes away that advantage.
Hill said his pitchers are good fielders because they’ve played multiple positions over the years. Still, he thinks it’s a good idea to wear a face mask.
At the middle-school level, pitchers and third basemen are required to wear masks. At the high-school level, however, there is no requirement for any position.
“I’m kind of surprised they haven’t done it in high school, too,” said Hill. “I think it’s probably coming before long.”
If the governing body doesn’t make it a rule, Hill said he is considering making it one for his own team.
East Wilkes makes its entire infield wear masks.
Craddock said he expects his third baseman to wear one. Third base is 60 feet from home, he noted. With players threatening to drop a bunt, he often has the fielder move in eight to 10 feet closer.
Third base has been known traditionally as the “hot corner” and 50 feet is awfully close to home, Craddock believes.
In one game this season, his first baseman Katelyn Mitchell was hit in the face by a grounder that kicked up and glanced off the heel of her glove.
Mitchell was OK and didn’t come out of the game.
Hot shots aren’t as frequent on the right side, he said. There aren’t many left-handed pull hitters in the conference, and opposite-field shots from right-handers aren’t as fast, generally.
Still, incidents like that have some coaches wondering about the requirements.
Hill said he thinks that middle schools should demand that first basemen wear a mask as well since they stand just as close to home as third basemen and are still developing as fielders.
Craddock said he doesn’t make the mask a rule for his pitchers — which include his daughter Chelsea — but is leaning toward it.
“Teeth are expensive,” he joked. And no parent wants to see a child hurt, he added.
He said some pitchers have complained about the mask bothering their vision as they throw.
There were similar grumblings from batters about wearing shields on batting helmets six or eight years back, said Hill. Now that a generation of players has grown up with the rule, no one complains anymore.
Similarly, Hill said he has two pitchers that don’t wear masks and two that do. The two who wear them are both sophomores who wore them in middle school first.
Brooke Bowman is one of those pitchers.
“In eighth grade, I was throwing batting practice,” she said. “A line drive was hit right back at me. If I hadn’t had my mask on, it would have demolished my face.”
The ball struck her shield so hard, the mask went flying toward third, and the ball ricocheted to first.
“It didn’t hurt me — the mask protected me,” Bowman said. “So I won’t set foot on the mound without my mask on.”
She added that one of her friends on the team told her that former East Surry star Hayley Shelton was hit in the face with a line drive while pitching at Marist this spring.
“I’m kind of torn in between a personal decision and being mandatory,” said Hill. What if the player is uncomfortable with it and doesn’t perform as well, he wondered.
North Surry Coach Julie Gammons said she played high school softball in an era long before masks on fielders and batters. She doesn’t feel like she should force it on her players if they aren’t comfortable.
None of the Greyhounds are using the masks this season.
At Mount Airy, “As of right now, only pitchers wear masks,” said Coach Olivia Beroth. However, she said she would be fine with a rule change.
She said her third baseman was hit in the side of the face while playing North Surry Friday afternoon. The fielder was fine, but the latest bruised fielder has brought the issue to mind for her and other coaches.
Contact Jeff Linville at email@example.com or 719-1920.