Only Rain Stopping This UMass Slugger
April 24, 2009
AMHERST, Mass. - When Samantha Salato woke up Tuesday morning, she looked out the window. Sure, the sky was grey and ominous, but maybe, just maybe, the rain would hold off, at least until after the University of Massachusetts softball team's game scheduled for 5 p.m. against Boston College.
The senior left fielder, who is in the midst of an unprecedented power surge, had not faced live pitching since Saturday and was anxious to get back in the batter's box. In the past four games, Salato has hit seven home runs in 14 at-bats.
That .500 home run average earned her USA Softball's national player of the week award.
Her 14 round-trippers in 31 games have her second in the nation in home runs per game.
Before this season started, seven home runs in a season would have been good enough for No. 13 on the Minutewomen's best single-season totals.
Salato has used the entire ballpark during this stretch. Three of her home runs have gone to left field, two to right and two more to center.
But rain did what opposing pitchers have failed to do in stopping Salato, at least for a day. The sky opened just at the Eagles bus was arriving at the UMass Softball Complex.
"It stinks because we haven't played in three days," said Salato, who instead worked on a paper for an education class. "I want to stay hot for our team. Hopefully it doesn't die down from not playing."
She will try to pick up where she left off today when UMass faces Connecticut at 4 p.m. at Storrs.
Like any hitter in a hot streak, Salato has analyzed what's led to her recent success. Could it be plate patience? Pitch recognition? Luck? Her lack of lower wisdom teeth?
That latter sounds ridiculous, but the timing is hard to ignore. After waking up at 4 a.m. with considerable pain from her impacted back teeth, Salato made an emergency dentist appointment to have them removed, a procedure that caused her to miss the Minutewomen's April 8 game at Boston College.
Still hurting, she returned on April 10 against Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia, but admitted afterward that she wasn't ready. She struck out four times in game one of the doubleheader and sat out game two.
After an April 12 twin bill against Temple was rained out, Salato returned to action pain free against Providence on April 14 and has chomped on opposing pitching ever since.
The senior from Toms River, N.J., was having a good season even before the oral surgery with seven home runs and 27 runs batted in, but since she returned to the lineup, Salato has been in the best hitting stretch of her career.
The furthest blast of the seven was the first one. In the third inning of the Minutewomen's 8-0 win over Providence, Salato launched a shot that not only cleared the short wall in left field and the 20-foot high scoreboard that sits directly behind it, but the complex's outer fence as well. It didn't stop until it clanged off a minivan in the parking lot.
Salato laughed at the idea her teeth were connected to the success.
"I was thinking 'I've been hitting the ball well since I got my teeth out,'" she said, giggling. "I was like 'Take some more out.'"
Dedicated to mom
The last of the long balls was the most special though. Salato's mother Elizabeth, who is in the midst of her second bout with cancer, made the trip from New Jersey to see her daughter play against George Washington on Saturday.
Before her 2009 campaign began, Salato decided to dedicate her season to her mother's fight against the illness, so to hit two home runs with her in the stands was special. Salato's friend Jenny Sherry tracked down the second long ball and gave it to Salato's mother.
"It makes her happy to see I'm doing well," Salato said. "It was good to see her. It makes me feel more relaxed. She's doing well. She's in recovery."
Salato said she's not trying to hit home runs, but trying or not she now has 14 this season, more than the 13 she had in her first three seasons combined. The total is one shy of former teammate Stacy Cullington's school record of 15 set in 2007.
"If you try to hit home runs, you'll end up doing worse," Salato said. "I'm just trying to get on base for our team. I'm just trying to get a piece. If it happens, it happens."
UMass coach Elaine Sortino credits preparation and maturity, more than dentistry, for Salato's success at the plate.
"Sam came here as a very powerful and capable hitter. Her problem had been more in her mental game managing her successes and failures. Her maturity as a senior has played into her success," Sortino said. "She's patient and she's bought into to trying to adjust. It's been her mentality, her ability to accept her failures and go with her success."
Salato appreciated the praise.
"It's coming together. It feels good. My patience is the best it's ever been. I'm not giving up at-bats," she said. "My freshman year I'd always get so mad at myself when I didn't get a hit. That's changed so much. I'm proud to say my attitude is 100 times better than it was."
While Salato will likely face more careful pitching in the last 10 regular-season games, opponents will have a hard time pitching around her because Sarah Reeves and Whitney Mollica, who are both among the Minutewomen's top 10 career home-run hitters, wait behind her.
"Our lineup is so strong," Salato said. "You can't take the chance not pitching to me. With the people behind me if they walk me, it's going to come back to bite them."
Salato knows the home run streak will come to an end eventually.
"As long as I keep producing and helping the team, I'm fine," said Salato, who joked she has a secret weapon to combat any future slump. "I've got two more wisdom teeth up top."
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