The leadoff hitter in baseball is mainly expected to be speedy and a regular on-base player. After her last home game of the season, we asked U of M shortstop Tyler Walker, who bats leadoff for the Gophers, if there is a similar expectation in college softball.
“I think it’s different only because the dynamics of the game is different,” she briefly explained. “You use the same approach [as in baseball] — you want to get on base to start the game and get things going.”
Down a run at the U of M’s May 5 home finale, Walker led off the seventh inning. “I think my approach was to hit the ball hard, make contact, and I will find a hole,” she recalled. The hitter took a 1-2 pitch up the middle for a single, and she later scored the tying run. The Gophers eventually scored the game winner and won 5-4.
Walker finished the game 2-for-4 with two singles and a stolen base, her 20th of the spring for Minnesota, who finished third in the regular season.
Now a lefty, Walker switched from right-handed as an early teenager. “One of my club ball coaches in California had recommended it, and I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll try it.’ At first it was difficult — I couldn’t swing the bat to save my life,” she recalled. “I slapped [hit] for a year. Then, my sophomore year, I started hitting for power.
“It was the best decision I could have ever made,” said Walker, who last week was named first team all-Big Ten.
When asked if batting left-handed gets her a bit closer to first base as opposed to batting from the other side of the plate, she replied with a little giggle, “It’s very true, but sometimes you don’t feel you are close enough.”
She always played shortstop, a position that requires a strong arm and the ability to cover lots of ground. “I tried pitching once, but I am much better at short,” admitted Walker. “I played a little bit of outfield at the beginning of the season, but I like being at short helping my team out there. Speed definitely helps — it allows me to make plays.”
The San Jose, California sophomore started every game in 2013 and leads Minnesota in runs, hits, doubles and triples. And in homers as well, a rarity for a leadoff hitter.
“I feel I am maturing as a player,” she noted. “Last year in the first couple of weekends [after homering, I thought], ‘Oh man, I am big enough to hit it out.’ It doesn’t matter what size you are. If you get a good pitch, it’s all yours.” Thus far, Walker has taken advantage of at least 11 good pitches, as she reached the fence 11 times this season.
Walker comes from a baseball-softball-playing family. Her dad is a Pac-12 umpire. “He talks a lot about being a student of the game. He definitely helps me a lot, always encouraging me and always wants me to be better.
“It’s a blessing and refreshing hearing him out there — I can hear him in the stands: ‘Keep your head up.’ And her brother was once a star baseball player as well. “My brother is my driving force in why I wanted to play D-I softball,” she said.
She often plays with Philippians 4:13 written on her left wrist. “I’m guilty that I am not doing it as much as I did in high school. I should do it more. ‘I can do all things through Christ’ — that strengthens me. I think that is for every lesson in life and not just sports.”
And as for her brother, who unfortunately was injured playing baseball and now is in a wheelchair, in her heart, “I play for the both of us,” Walker proudly says. “I just want to make him proud at every opportunity I get. Everything I do I like to credit it to him for playing backyard baseball with me when we were six. I’m living a dream for both of us, and I think that’s awesome.”
Despite two all-conference seasons now in the books, Walker quickly pointed out that she’s far from a complete player. “You learn something about softball every day, and you have to handle it and respect the game. You don’t say, ‘I’ve done it.’ Your biggest competition is yourself. You are only going to beat yourself if you take yourself out of it. That’s the biggest single lesson I’ve learned.”
Before third-seeded Minnesota traveled to last weekend’s Big Ten softball tournament, Walker predicted, “I think we are going to do very big things. We are going to go far.” She hit a two-run blast off the scoreboard to give the Gophers a 2-0 lead Sunday in the Big Ten softball tournament finals, but they eventually lost to Wisconsin 9-3. The team nonetheless received an at-large bid and plays Hawaii this weekend in the NCAA Seattle Regional.
“We’re still young,” said Walker of Minnesota — a majority of its 2013 roster was underclassmen. “I think it benefits us because there is so much room to grow. We all are striving for the same thing.”
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