Moving softball mound has led to fundamental changes in sport
Published 2:25 pm, Thursday, May 19, 2011
During an 11-day stretch that began late last month, the Stamford High School softball team, which had one loss, played three games in which it committed at least three errors.
The miscues contributed to losses to Fairfield Ludlowe and Darien, while in the middle contest the Black Knights scored 11 runs as their offense outdistanced their defense.
There was an average of nearly 14 combined runs in each game.
"Things have changed this year," Stamford coach Tony Esposito said at the time. "I think you look across the board you are seeing more hitting, more fielding and the need to make plays."
A seemingly minor rule change by the CIAC this season has had a dramatic affect on the FCIAC landscape. To conform with the Amateur Softball Association, the sport's governing board, the distance between the mound and home plate was moved back from 40 to 43 feet.
Those 36 inches have led to fundamental differences, and will be significant next week, when the FCIAC Tournament begins.
"The game has changed," said Danielle Simoneau, the first-year coach at New Canaan. "It's no longer a pitcher's game."
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Until this April, a strong case could be made that a pitcher in softball could directly impact the outcome of games more than any other player at any other position in any sport.
Not anymore. Hard throwers who used to see pitches end up in their catcher's glove are now more dependent on their fielders than ever before. A strong offense this season has proved to be a great equalizer.
"Pitchers are not as dominant as much," said St. Joseph's Micki Keltos, who earned All-FCIAC and All-State honors at the position that last two seasons. "It forces teams to play cleanly. And batters have more reaction time."
Westhill, which has a new full-time pitcher in Allison Macari, was the league's lone unbeaten team heading into Saturday. It has scored 133 runs and been solid defensively. Darien, which has one loss and currently would be the No. 2 seed, has scored 169 runs. The two teams meet Monday.
This has been one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory. New Canaan, with perhaps its most talented lineup ever, handed the Blue Wave their lone loss, yet last week lost to Greenwich, which at the time had just three victories.
"It has switched to a hitters' game," said Pam Mazzarella, who is in her first season as the coach at Ridgefield. Before that she played for five years in Italy, at Florida Atlantic for former Raybestos Brakettes pitching legend Joan Joyce, and pitched at Brookfield High School.
"In the past the game was all controlled by the pitchers," she said. "Even when I was playing, if you had one dominant pitcher it didn't matter who was behind you, you were going to win. Those three feet make a big difference."
To compensate, the speed of pitches has become marginalized, and ball movement of greater importance.
"There's no superstar anymore; with 43 feet you are not going to get that," Simoneau said. "From a coach's point now you have to move the ball. You have to become a pitcher instead of a thrower."
Macari, a junior, has one of the hardest fastballs and is the player most often mentioned by opposing coaches as the league's best pitcher. Her strikeout total is much lower than it would have been a year ago.
"I definitely use my screwball and drop, and started throwing my changeup more," she said. "I'm not noticing the change that much because we play at 43 feet in the summer. But strikeouts are a lot less frequent. It has changed the whole game."
Pitchers are not the only ones compensating. Hitters have been forced to adjust to use the extra time to their advantage.
Macari and Keltos have been just as successful at the plate this spring.
"You have to wait on the ball a lot more now," Macari said. "You can't swing too early. I've changed my stance a little bit because of it."
Added Keltos, "You have more time to react now. You have to move up in the box a little."
While one might expect the near extinction of pulsating pitchers' duels would cause mixed feelings, the higher-scoring games have been met with almost universal approval.
"I like it," Mazzarella said. "Now everybody's into the game. It's a lot more fun to watch."
Simoneau agreed, adding that it forces her to stay on top of a game even more than in the past.
"It's more exciting," she said. "It used to be the infield might only get a ball or two, now there's a lot more and you have to be able to field," Simoneau said. "And there's a lot more coaching you have to do. You have to position your players right, especially depending on the pitch."
Even the pitchers, who have had the most to lose, say they prefer the current rules.
"It makes the game more interesting," Keltos said. "It motivates me to pitch better. Scores have gone up a lot. It's not just 1-0 or 2-1 games. It has been fun."