By Rich Bevensee
Two years ago when it was first suggested that Kiera Del Salto try hitting left handed, the logic was sound enough. It would help the speedy leadoff hitter get down the first base line quicker.
But the project was just too difficult. Strikeouts led to frustration, which in turn led to more strikeouts.
Fast forward to last September when Empire State Huskies 12U coach Joe Porcelli broached the lefty subject again. This time Del Salto welcomed the idea with open arms.
She has since become lethal with a bat from the left side, as evidenced by her performance this weekend during the Jennie Finch Spring Invitational at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
Del Salto capped a white-hot tournament at the plate by going 2-for-3 with two RBI in the White Division championship game while leading the Huskies to a 10-1 four-inning victory over Connecticut Seahawks Thunder Gold-Lieto on Sunday.
Del Salto batted .722 for the 12U tournament and was named Most Valuable Player.
“Getting the MVP feels great but it’s better because I’ve been practicing with my team, and especially because last weekend (in a 14U tournament) I only had a .300 batting average,” Del Salto said. “It feels great having everyone behind me.”
Porcelli said the Huskies, based in Westchester County, N.Y., were brimming with confidence coming to ‘The Nation’ after winning a 14U tournament title last weekend in Chester, N.Y.
“That (14U tournament) was everything,” Porcelli said. “They were feeling down about themselves (after subpar spring trips to Florida and North Carolina) and we told them to keep looking forward, go back to playing basic softball, don’t dwell on the negative and things will come together. You could see the excitement happening as they were starting to beat 14 year old teams and realized, wow, we can do this. We’re back.”
That confidence was never more evident than in how the team performed offensively. Through seven games at Diamond Nation, the Huskies outscored the opposition 58-9.
“We work really hard on offense,” Porcelli said. “That’s what we do in the winter because we don’t have a lot of space to do much else. We adopted a new hitting style this winter and it’s really catching on.”
Another Huskie who stood out in the championship game was Peyton Burton, who raced around the bases in her two plate appearances. She went 2-for-2 with an inside-the-park home run and four RBI.
In the bottom of the second inning, Burton scorched a grounder up the middle which skipped to the center field fence. As she rounded third the throw came home and she collided with the Seahawks catcher who could not corral the throw. Burton, lying face down, reached out and slammed home plate with her palm.
“At that moment I was expecting a play at the plate because they all have strong arms,” Burton said. “When I rounded first I tripped and almost fell on my face so I had to keep going. When we collided all I could think about was touching home.”
In the bottom of the third, Burton launched a single to left which drove in two runs. A three-base outfield error allowed Burton to wheel around the bases for a second straight at bat.
“I look at Coach at third and he’s telling me to go, but I usually think I can make it home because I’m pretty fast – probably because I have long strides,” Burton said. “Me personally, I think I can make it even if Coach didn’t give me the sign to go.”
Also for the Huskies, Sophie O’Connell singled, doubled, drove in a run and scored twice. Lila Conrad and Madison Miller each had a hit and an RBI.
Conrad pitched a four-hitter with three walks and 10 strikeouts in four innings. Conrad teamed with Miller in the circle to polish off the East Coast Panthers 9-2 in the semifinals.
For Del Salto, the tournament served as validation for her commitment to that unfamiliar world of hitting from the opposite side of the plate. She said it didn’t seem that long ago that the first suggestion ended up as a failed experiment.
“I tried it in 10U for two months, but I was really selfish,” Del Salto said. “I kept striking out so I didn’t want to try any more and I switched back to righty.
“In September, right after nationals, was when Coach asked me to try it again. He wanted me to switch because he wanted me to use my speed to make it easier to get on. It was a lot easier than when I was starting from scratch, and I actually like it a lot now. After being with him and everyone picking me up after that, I learned that strikeouts are going to happen and I just started (hitting left handed), so I can’t put all that pressure on myself.”
In the title game, Seahawks Thunder Gold scored its only run in its first at bat, when Lucy Blasotti drove in Josie Lieto on an outfield error.
In the bottom of the second, Burton opened her team’s scoring with her wild two-run trip around the bases. Del Salto added a two-run double for a 4-1 Huskies lead.
In the third, Conrad poked an opposite-field RBI single through the hole at short, and Burton added a two-run single which turned into a three-run swing and an 8-1 lead.
The Huskies ended the game in the fourth via the 10-run mercy rule when an error on Alanah King’s ground ball allowed Del Salto to score. O’Connell and Miller added RBI singles to put the finishing touches on the tournament title.
Like the Huskies, Seahawks Thunder Gold entered the final with an equally impressive record against the opposition, as the Monroe, Conn.-based club outscored its previous six opponents 39-9.