The first three years of Simone Heyward’s career with the LSU softball team have been about her ability to adapt to whatever she’s been asked to do.
The speedy junior from Sacramento, Calif., has gone from being the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, where she was asked to work the count on pitchers, to the second spot in the order, where her job was to move runners over.
But when she began the 2013 season in an 0-for-10 slide, Heyward was asked to drop to a spot in the lineup — No. 9 — that was all too unfamiliar for the 2011 All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team pick.
“At first, you’re usually thinking the No. 9 batter can’t hit, or isn’t very good,” Heyward said. “But you have to look at it as being like the second leadoff hitter for the table-setters at the top of the lineup.”
So that’s exactly what Heyward did when she accepted the role second-year coach Beth Torina decided to put her in. She did her job well enough to be in same spot for the 10th-ranked Tigers’ SEC tournament opener on Thursday against Georgia in Lexington, Ky.
Torina dropped Heyward in the order and inserted Jacee Blades into the second spot to form a potent duo with All-SEC first-team selection A.J. Andrews leading off. Andrews wound up leading the team with a .359 average, while Blades was third at .354.
Heyward did her part, too, bouncing back from that .000 start at the plate to finish with a .345 average while starting 39 of the 43 games she played in as LSU claimed the SEC West title.
Torina said Heyward, who is a first cousin of Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward, took the change well after a tough sophomore season in which she slumped to a .219 average after hitting .294 as a freshman.
A fractured finger late last season didn’t help things, Heyward said.
“I think Simone handled things well,” Torina said Tuesday. “When she broke her (finger) and did some things, she lost some of her confidence.
“The move in the lineup was a way to get her to see some better pitching and to build up her confidence,” she said. “Honestly, it’s just worked out so well for her there. She’s really excelled at it.”
Heyward said she had to make an adjustment while working for the first time with slap-hitting coach Sharonda McDonald, a first-year volunteer assistant.
“I had to work on getting a lot of stuff right, and I was thinking way too much,” Heyward said. “I’ve never had a slapping coach before and she pointed out a lot of things, with different ways to bunt and stuff like that.
“I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong because I would either walk, get hit by a pitch or strike out,” she said.
“Then, I figured out it was a mental thing and I just had to see the ball and hit it.”
Heyward, who was 30-of-77 for a .390 average after her ice-cold start at the plate, hasn’t just done it with the bat for the Tigers.
She was one of the keys both offensively and defensively in a three-game sweep of reigning national champion Alabama two weeks ago.
Heyward was 3-for-5 and scored three runs as LSU won each game by one run, which was key as she raced home with the game-tying or game-winning run in all three contests.
In addition, Heyward, who moved from center field to right early this season, picked up two assists when she cut down an Alabama runner at home plate in the middle game of the series and got another one trying to make it to third from first on a base hit near the right-field line in the finale.
“I think she has shown every bit of why we did that,” Torina said of the defensive switch that coincided with being dropped to the bottom of the batting order. “Your strongest arm should be in right field, and I think Simone has really excelled at that, as well.”
But what Heyward gives them in the nine hole offensively is huge, Torina said, because it ties her into the top of the order where Andrews, Blades and freshman Bianka Bell, who hit .357, are waiting.
“Every time Simone comes to the plate, I’m so confident that we’ll get something going and score,” Torina said. “Whether we have two outs, no outs, whatever the scenario is … whenever she steps up to the plate, they’re going to give us a chance.”
The best thing is Heyward totally understands her ever-changing role.
“We have the table-setters, then the power hitters and the contact hitters,” she said. “I need to be the transition to get us back to the top of the order. My job is to keep the rally going, or start the rally and let the table-setters come back up.”
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