Lineup change spurs success

By Brent Meske, @brentmeskeDE

After 15 games with the same leadoff hitter, the Saluki softball coaching staff made a change at the top of the order.

Senior center fielder Kalyn Harker batted leadoff for 14 games with junior infielder Kelsey Gonzalez batting second for 13 games. The lineup was not producing, so coach Kerri Blaylock said the team needed a change.

“It was time to do something different,” she said. “We needed a spark plug.”

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Harker had a .191 batting average, 10 runs, 3 RBIs, 6 walks and 10 strikeouts in the first 15 games of the season.

Strikeouts were a problem Harker worked with associate head coach Jen Sewell to solve. She said it was because of an uncomfortable swing.

“I worked a lot with [Sewell] to get my footwork and hands right,” she said. “I feel a lot more comfortable slapping and I have everything right now.”

Harker admitted she struggled in the leadoff spot, which Blaylock attributed to a usual slow start for Harker.

“She’s been a slow starter for four years,” she said. “She just needed to get on track, but you see what she can do.”

While the leadoff hitters struggled, the Dawgs limped to a 5-9-1 record.

Gonzalez had a .244 batting average, with 4 runs, 5 RBIs, 7 walks and 3 strikeouts through the first 15 games.

Sewell said the team feeds off of Gonzalez.

“Whatever Kelsey does makes them feel better,” she said. “She’s like the comfort blanket. She calms the team at short, and she calms the team at the leadoff spot.”

On March 11, in a 3-2 loss against Lipscomb University, the coaching staff put Gonzalez at leadoff and Harker at No. 2. The Salukis are (6-1, 6-0) since, and are leading the Missouri Valley Conference.

Gonzalez and Harker are No. 1 and 3 in batting with .328 and .306 averages respectively, and are two of four players on the team batting .300 or better. Gonzalez has the 14th best average in the MVC for batters with 60 or more at-bats.

Sewell said Gonzalez is calm and Harker is energetic, a perfect one-two punch for the lineup.

“We can have a nice, calm first at-bat and then we can go to work after that,” she said. “We don’t have to stifle our momentum and we can just roll now.”

Since the switch, Gonzalez is batting .478 with 5 runs, 3 RBIs, 5 walks and zero strikeouts. Harker is batting .480 with 7 runs, 5 RBIs, 1 walk and 1 strikeout.

Gonzalez, who has not batted leadoff since she was 12 years old, said she did not think the change would be permanent.

“Kalyn wasn’t feeling confident in the one-hole so [Blaylock] tried me there,” she said. “Right now it is working and the two of us feel comfortable where we are.”

Blaylock and Sewell told Gonzalez not to change what she was doing when going to the leadoff spot. They stressed she would only really be leading off once per game and every other time would be a normal at-bat.

Gonzalez gives the team feedback about pitchers, a key for success in the game, Blaylock said.

“[Gonzalez] does a great job of seeing a lot of pitches,” she said. “She gives great information—once she sees the pitcher for the first time—to the other hitters.”

Since the change, the Salukis have scored in four of seven first innings, something the team did only five times in the 15 games before. 

Harker said she and Gonzalez need to help the team score early.

“When we get on base in the first inning, it pumps the team up,” she said. “If we can score in the first inning, it helps our pitchers out too.”

The change at the top two positions was a drop in the bucket for an ever-changing Saluki lineup this season. SIU has used 21 different lineups through 22 games this year.

Sewell said once they made the switch with Harker and Gonzalez the offense clicked.

“When we switched it, it was a ‘duh’ moment,” she said. “Players really make coaches look like geniuses, so we thank them for that.”

Brent Meske can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3311 ext. 269. 

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