By LARRY VAUGHT
It didn’t take long for pitcher Grace Baalman to learn two valuable lessons last year during her freshman season at Kentucky.
“Pretty much there are no off batters or off plays. You have got to be focused on every play, every batter,” said Baalman. “You don’t want to get behind in the count, either. You have to find that happy medium between what is a hard pitch to hit and what the umpire will call a strike. On any given day, umpires might call a different strike zone. You have to find what it is.”
That’s where having coach Rachel Lawson not only calling pitches during a game but also scouting opposing batters before games helps.
“It does make it easier knowing she is making the calls,” Baalman said. “There are certain things you can do with certain pitches and she knows what you are better equipped to throw and when to throw it.”
Lawson has seen a stronger Baalman preparing for this season, which started last weekend with Baalman going 1-1 in her two starts and not having quite the success the pitcher and coach both expect to see as the season progresses.
“Her ball is breaking more,” Lawson said. “Grace doesn’t even look close to the pitcher you saw last year. She has gotten a lot more power this fall. Last year she was consistently throwing in the low 60’s, now she is throwing consistently in the mid-to-upper 60’s which really is a testament to her amount of work that she has done.”
Baalman had complete games in her first nine starts last season and only allowed three or more earned runs in three of her 28 appearance. She got her first SEC win over No. 8 LSU and also beat No. 16 Alabama and No. 10 Tennessee. She finished the year 14-9 with a 2.72 earned run average. She had 98 strikeouts in 136 innings and gave up 136 hits and 48 walks.
She’s added more “heaviness” to her pitches this year.
“The ball has more spin on it, so it less likely to be hit hard,” Baalman, a dominant strikeout pitcher in high school, explained. “My ball has always had spin but it has gotten tighter and that helps with the heaviness. Me and coach Lawson have really worked on it to get the rise ball and cure to spin more and for my drop ball to drop more. Having coach Lawson as the pitching coach can be hard, but every day she knows what I need to work on to make me better.”
Baalman says UK’s experienced defense will be huge asset and UK’s other pitchers this season.
“(Shortstop) Katie Reed and (third baseman) Abbey Cheek cover a lot of ground,” Baalman said. “You will think a ball is a hit and then Katie comes up with it and throws the runner out. I am still amazed by the plays she can make. I also know our offense will score runs. I just have to do my thing to give us a chance to win.”
Baalman was a solid high school hitter and got 24 at-bats last season. She admits she “really likes hitting” and worked to become a good high school hitter.
“But college is a different story. I know primarily I will just pitch, but if I get a chance, I love hitting,” Baalman said.
She was also an all-state basketball player and all-conference volleyball player at Calhoun (Ill.) High School. She watched the UK women’s basketball team play as well as the volleyball team.
Could she play for either team?
“I don’t think I could compete in volleyball. I am not fast enough. They are amazing,” Baalman said. “The basketball players have so much endurance and passion. I will just stick with softball. I never really loved basketball. There was just not much else to do at my high school. I did maybe consider playing volleyball in college, but I knew softball was the route for me.”
She was also ranked No. 1 academically in her high school class. She says she’s still trying to “figure out” what she wants to do after college but that she has a “passion” for art.
“I really like painting and drawing,” she said. “I love studying different artists. My dream would be to have my own art studio and create for others.”
Her artistic genes could come from her father.
“He’s very artistic. He runs a taxidermy shop,” Baalman said. “So I kind of take after him I think.”