Bianka Bell has been the most productive offensive player on the LSU softball team this season.
But it was the way her mini-slump played out last weekend that best demonstrated how much she has grown during her junior year.
After Bell had two hits and four RBIs during the Tigers’ 15-0, five-inning victory against Texas Southern in the Baton Rouge regional first round, the LSU offense and Bell in particular found hits and runs hard to come by during the next four games.
At shortstop she made an error and moments later grabbed a sinking liner as it touched the dirt, turning a potential inning-ending double play into a run-producing force-out. That gave Arizona State a one-run lead going into the bottom of the seventh inning of the winner-take-all finale.
“I think the Bianka of old would carry things with her for a long time,” coach Beth Torina said, “but not this one.”
The Tigers tied the game, though Bell left the winning run at second — and two innings later, Bell, who was 1 for her last 14 at-bats, lined a single to center to bring home the winning run and send LSU into the Baton Rouge super regional, which begins at 2 p.m. Saturday against Arizona.
“I don’t think she had the greatest weekend that she would have hoped for coming in, but she had the hit that sent us on to the super regional,” outfielder A.J. Andrews said. “She can get over things really quickly.”
That hasn’t always been the case.
After Arizona took the lead, Bell said she briefly flashed back to her freshman season when her first-pitch pop-out became the penultimate out in the Tigers season as she left the bases loaded in a 1-0 regional loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.
“Freshman year was a big struggle and I definitely don’t want to go back to that,” Bell said. “It almost got back to that point when I started crying in the dugout. But as a leader I needed to compose myself and stay strong for the team. I think I’m doing a better job of that, and it was definitely a big thing for me.”
Bell, who was co-Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year two years ago, said she had a habit of putting to much pressure on herself, focusing on exceeding the lofty statistics she compiled her first season.
But in the past year, she said, she has learned to zero in on the task at hand and let the big picture take care of itself.
“I’m not worried about myself because I’m focused on the team and what I want to accomplish as a team and not just me doing my own thing,” she said. “I’ve become more of a selfless person, and I think that’s helped me have the season I’m having this year.”
It’s been quite a season. Bell leads the Tigers in batting average (.436) and slugging percentage (.830), and she and Sahvanna Jaquish have tied the single-season home run record (17) set by Jaquish last season. They’re also tied for the RBI record (71).
Given those numbers, catcher Kellsi Kloss put Bell’s weekend into perspective.
“It was an uncharacteristic weekend for Bianka,” Kloss said, “but if you look at her numbers, anything less than a .500 weekend is really an uncharacteristic weekend for Bianka.”
Earlier this season, Bell became LSU’s career home run leader. She now has 43, but Andrews said the Tigers have learned to depend on her for more than just big hits.
“I think a lot of times when she gets down on herself is when things go rough,” outfielder A.J. Andrews said. “She hasn’t done that at all this year. She’s been really mature and uplifted others.
“She’s someone we really look to in tough situations. She’s not only someone we look to, to hit the home run, she’s also someone we look to, to talk or say something positive in the dugout.”
Torina noted Bell’s improved defensive play, calling a spectacular diving catch she made running away from the infield in the first of three games against Arizona State, “one of the best plays of the entire season.”
“I think that’s the best defensive tournament I’ve ever seen her have,” Torina said.
Bell’s fielding percentage dropped from .932 her freshman season to .923 last season when she was briefly moved to the designated player’s spot. This season her fielding percentage is .944.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey and I’ve enjoyed every minute of watching Bianka,” Torina said. “It’s so nice to see someone that you knew was capable of this understand that she was capable of it too.
“I think her first two years she doubted what she could accomplish and now she’s finally in the right spot mentally and it’s just been fun watching her be one of the best players in the country.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.