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Players perfect swings at batting cages

Baseball takes quite a swing for the boys and girls of summer.

With the professional leagues reaching the midpoint of their seasons – the Carolina and South Atlantic leagues had their All-Star games in the past two weeks, and the Major League Baseball’s Midsummer Classic happens July 10 – practice at the plate can work any time of the year with batting cages, weather permitting.

Myra Kruger of New London, N.C., watched in mid-June as her son, Casey Kruger, whacked some machine-thrown, 45 to 50 mph pitches at Harbor Light Baseball & Softball Batting Range in Surfside Beach.

The 11-year-old, on a family vacation and playing on traveling youth league team that day on the city of Myrtle Beach’s diamonds at Grand Park, had never used a batting cage before this day. With three tokens left, each good for 10 pitches, he had budgeted his time for 220 pitches: half in the morning, half in the evening.

Casey said he has played the game for four years, shifting among first base and outfield, along with some pitching. He found the batting cages a challenge in some regards, but he liked the extracurricular practice.

“If you’re working on your stance,” the left-handed hitter said, “there’s not a lot of time to make corrections.”

He said the variety of pitches made “go all over,” a contrast from having a coach throw practice to him, with a slower pace, the usual routine a few times a week along with hitting balls off a tee.

The Atlanta Braves fan, with longtime third baseman Chipper Jones atop his list of favorite players, said the nearest cages to his home sit 30 miles away, but that he’d be game to try this means of practice again.

His mother, a routine rooter for her son’s teams, also sees passion for the game in the stands.

“Sometimes it’s the parents who are more into it than the kids,” she said.

‘I keep building’

Another 11-year-old, Nick Smith of Surfside Beach, tries to get some rounds in at Harbor Light almost every day. Last Friday, he took some 60 to 65 mph pitches, and smack, smack, smack – he sent many balls aloft.

With catching and pitching on his resume from youth league play, Nick rotates among pitch speeds for the variety.

Since starting with “slo-pitch” a few years ago, Nick said, “I keep building. It’s getting easier and easier.”

He said with regular visits to the cages on his own time, “You work on what you need to do without the pressure.”

His mother, Cathy Smith, enjoys observing the progress, especially his ambitions for switch hitting.

“It’s definitely showing,” she said, crediting her husband, Jerry Smith, for extra coaching.

Cathy Smith said the cage time lets Nick work on “a different swing or a different bat,” and all the practice translates into higher self-confidence, and playing sports in general “keeps him sharp and well-behaved.”

Nick’s favorite player, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, also reflects his parents’ roots, the Boston Red Sox.

Standing in the cashier’s booth with Moose, his 7-year-old terrier mix, resting by his feet, Dean Karukas said Harbor Light, the lone public batting cages across the Grand Strand, has remained a family business for 16 years. The owner said a milder winter let him keep the complex open all year long.

Karukas said April always bring an uptick in business, especially from fellow native Northerners eager to get a jump on spring weather.

“I’m from Upstate New York,” he said, “where you have spring training with snow on the ground.”

He also sees local youngsters who hop in the cages four or five times a week, and he watches their noticeable improvement, starting with low speeds – even a “Soft Toss” machine geared to youth ages 5 to 8 – and driving themselves to balls hurled with more mustard, as high a Major League changeup 75 to 80 mph.

“You learn and you practice,” Karukas said. “It’s like homework: You practice what you learn in school. You come here and hone those skills.”

Having grown up a New York Yankees fan, the Braves follower said baseball continues improving on all levels.

“There’s really no offseason for Major League players,” said Karukas, who not only sees families and couples hit balls just for fun, but whole recreation teams take turns in the cages, “especially when slo-pitch softball begins in the fall.”

‘Muscle memory’

Eric Feibusch, baseball operations coordinator at The Ripken Experience, a host for youth baseball clinics year round, said 17 cages on site receive plenty of use by the 1,000 teams that will pass through in 2012.

He said the cages provide a crucial component in game preparations, because with Ripken’s eight fields in use, and the loss of the time and place for batting practice there, the cages let players warm up with their comfortable swing with goals to carry that momentum into the real-life batter’s box.

Cages provide a “a great tool to warm up, if you do it right,” Feibusch said, “for your muscle memory.”

He said with a full focus in the batting cage, players who “get that correct swing in the cage” aim to “to get the correct swing in the game,” and that practice in cages can help prevent formation of a “lazy swing.”

“It’s that whole practice-like-you-play thing,” Feibusch said. “You get that swing down and replicate that swing, your muscle memory will make sure that swing’s the same in the games.”

Professional practice

Jason Wood, the manager since 2011 of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the Texas Rangers Advanced-A affiliate, called batting cages “so important” on a professional level.

“That’s basically where an offensive player’s day starts,” he said, before a loaded daily schedule that later includes batting practice on the field, “where you see the ball fly off the bat.”

Wood said so much homework “starts in the cage,” where “you have so many different drills.”

“That’s where you hone your swing, and gain strength in your swing, where you figure everything out,” he said Tuesday by phone in the middle of a four-game series in Lynchburg, Va.

Those skills also include wrist strength and swing speed among “hundreds and hundreds” of elements everyone masters differently, Wood said.

“That’s where it all it is,” he said. “You try to figure it all out in the batting cage, then for batting practice, you let it all go. Most of the work starts in the cage.”

Wood, an infielder who played for three Major League teams and was a Rangers system hitting coach before his promotion to skipper in Myrtle Beach, remembered his own time expending quarters for practice in cages when playing Little League at home in northern California.

“My father used to take me to a batting cage just about before every baseball game I would play,” he said.

Wood said batting-cage time gave him father-son time together, and the setting also works for “just you and a friend.”

Another benefit of the cages saves the batter some steps, some legwork, after hitting rounds of balls.

“You don’t have to shag them,” he said.