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A whole different ball game

When I asked USF softball coach Ken Eriksen if I, just a petty staff writer at The Oracle, could step into the batter’s box and face one of his best pitchers, I knew it would be a challenge.

But I, a baseball player for much of my life, didn’t realize how great of a challenge it was until I tried my luck against assistant coach – and former Bulls standout – Monica Triner. I went to the Bulls’ practice Thursday and anxiously waited until it ended. After he addressed the team for about 10 minutes, Eriksen yelled in my direction, “Joel, you ready?”

Thinking I was, I responded with a “yes sir” and walked onto the field with no idea what I was getting into. I mean, who am I to think I can go toe-to-toe and slap a line drive off an experienced pitcher?

I chose the lightest bat I could find, put on a helmet with a face guard and nervously stepped into the right-handed batter’s box. Triner confidently waited in the pitcher’s circle, just 40 feet away from the plate.

In my mind, I thought of whom I was facing. Triner, who graduated from USF in 1999, is the Bulls’ all-time leader in wins (92), complete games (109), strikeouts (641), shutouts (37) and innings pitched (788) and second in career saves (15). She’s a legend, and she knows a thing or two about pitching.

Triner courteously asked if I wanted to see some warm-up tosses first. I figured it probably wouldn’t make a difference – I was doomed anyway. I just dug in and hoped to make contact.

Triner whirled her arm back and effortlessly released the bright green sphere in my direction. The ball landed in the catcher’s mitt before I realized she let it go.

“Joel,” Eriksen bellowed. “I thought you said you were ready?” I chuckled a bit after that comment, and shot back: “Let me see that one again.”

Round 2.

I dug in again – this time ready to start my swing early. Triner brought her arm back, and in that natural windmill motion, hurled another fastball toward home. I saw it better this time and still whiffed.

“Joel,” again Eriksen called. “I thought you said you were ready?”

Needless to say, the softball team – positioned around the infield – began laughing at my expense. I had to at least make contact to not entirely embarrass myself. Three pitches later, I managed to hit a weak foul tip. I asked Triner if that was her change-up, and she said, “No, but would you like to see it?”

I reluctantly nodded my head, and with the same beautiful motion, Triner released a dancing, knuckling pitch in my direction. I swung right through it and felt absolutely dumbfounded, the team roaring with laughter.

After a couple more fastballs, I began seeing the ball better but could only muster a few slow grounders to shortstop.

So Eriksen chimed in with a situation.

“Runner on third, one out, two strikes, tie game, bottom of the seventh,” he said. “Joel, if you put this in play we can win it. No pressure.”

I dug in, pounded the plate with my bat and put on the most determined face I had. Again, Triner wheeled back and let it go.

And I swung and missed. I kept thinking that this is sure tougher than it looks. That was the end for me. I couldn’t even win the game at the end for Eriksen. But I certainly learned a lot about what Triner talked about after the exercise, saying that a lot of people don’t understand how difficult it is to hit a pitch.

“Many people think that softball is easy because the ball is bigger and the field is smaller than in baseball,” she said. “But once you actually step into the batter’s box, you see that it’s not easy at all. For one, the pitcher doesn’t stand on an elevated mound, so our ‘out pitch’ is when we throw the ball and spin it upon release to make it rise up when it gets to home plate. You will want to swing level, but the ball rises at the last moment to make it very difficult to hit.”

I found this out first hand. It’s a lot harder than it looks.

Trying to hit a 65-mph rise ball from 40 feet away is the equivalent of seeing a 98-mph fastball from a major league baseball mound.

The next time anyone thinks softball is an easy game, just step into the batter’s box against Triner.

She’ll be waiting.