So the pickoff move. Before games, she asks her first baseman to join her in right field, in a make-believe situation, where she throws out make-believe runners. Timing is everything. Form is, too. But that can’t help her thrive when the bases are empty. To do that, she has spent years on YouTube, studying Clayton Kershaw, a fellow lefty, and Max Scherzer, whose change-up she tries to copy.
With Scherzer, she notices how, while throwing that particular pitch, his right arm goes one way and his wrist snaps in the opposite direction. The ensuing movement makes the ball fade away from left-handed batters. Yet because she is a lefty, she has to practice in a mirror, lining her arm and hand up with Scherzer’s from the other side. At school, she sometimes holds a ball using Scherzer’s grip, training her fingers to go there without thinking.
With Kershaw, she pulls up relief appearances in the playoffs, seeing how he works from the stretch and uses his slider under pressure. Paloma Benach knows a thing or two about pressure.
She wants to play college baseball after graduating from Wilson High in Northwest Washington. No, scratch that: Benach wants to keep pitching, as long as she can.
“Something I’ve been subconsciously working on this spring is my change-up, because I have a good fastball and I’ve developed a good two-seam that has good runaway action,” said Benach, now a 17-year-old senior. “A lot of work on my change-up could make me a lot more effective to like have a ball that kind of, if I pronate it right, it just dies outside to a right-handed batter.”
“When I’m throwing with a teammate, when I’m throwing long toss or something,” she responded, explaining how she wants her hand to move during each follow through, “I grip the change-up and I work on spinning it off my pointer finger. I want to get the tail-away action.”
In the spring, Benach became the second girl ever to make Wilson’s varsity team. This summer, she played a mix of coed and all-girls tournaments, including the Baseball For All Nationals in Aberdeen, Md., as a pitcher and first baseman. She visited colleges and gauged the possibility of joining their programs. Otherwise, she was at DC Dynasty Baseball, a workout facility, building strength and refining her fastball, change-up and curve.
Eight women are expected to be rostered by college teams in 2022, according to Baseball For All, a nonprofit focused on opportunities for women to play and coach in a homogenous sport. The highest level is Division III, and Benach aims to be the fourth pitcher in the group.
That’s why she pores over slow-motion video of Scherzer, Kershaw, Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale and Milwaukee Brewers reliever Devin Williams. That’s why she picks her teammates’ brains on their grips and release points. That’s why, in recent years, after starting to pitch as a 9-year-old, she has altered the pace of her delivery to throw off hitters. She’ll do anything to get ahead.
“There’s so many ways that baseball tells someone that they don’t belong,” said Ava Benach, who runs DC Girls Baseball and coaches Paloma, her daughter. “I could give you the example du jour because it’s constantly enforced. You know, Trevor Bauer — Trevor Bauer was going to pitch and go about his life after allegations, credible allegations that he cracked a woman’s skull open, and it was only after there was horrible backlash that they [place him on administrative leave].”
Bauer was placed on leave after a California woman claimed the Dodgers pitcher choked her unconscious and then repeatedly punched her during a sexual encounter that left her hospitalized. Medical records submitted in court by Bauer’s accuser show that while doctors initially suspected a fracture, a CT scan later ruled it out.
“Women and girls are told that baseball doesn’t value them every day,” Ava Benach continued. “To be told that you belong by somebody who knows is a very powerful thing.”
That’s why Ava cried when Paloma made the varsity team in the winter. They were still locked down during the coronavirus pandemic, unsure of what the high school season would look like. Then James Silk, Wilson’s head coach, called Paloma one night and told her she made it.
Before her first practice, Silk made a point to say “guys and girls” during a team huddle. This was new territory for him. But afterward, Paloma walked over and asked that he never do that again. She wanted to just be part of the team, not singled out. Silk and her teammates helped honor that request.
“This sort of dynamic …” Silk began, referring to Paloma playing with all boys. “Kids just handle adversity and uncomfortable situations, I’d argue, a lot better than adults.”
As a younger pitcher on the roster, Benach made only a handful of varsity appearances in 2021, mostly in relief. And during their exit meeting after the season, Silk told her to key on raising her average velocity in the summer and fall. She hovered in the high 60s, topping out in the low 70s. An increase of about seven mph was the goal.
One of her favorite parts of the season was facing Wilson’s talented order, testing her stuff against friends. Ask her for a scouting report, how she approached each hitter, and Benach leaps into detail. She sounds like a late-career major leaguer, hanging on with lowered velocity and a bag of tricks. Her mind is a powerful tool.
“For example, if I look at our number one batter, he should basically kind of spray the ball all over the field, so you want to give him a lot of stuff away and not a lot of straight fastballs,” Benach said this summer. “Second batter, he’s a little unpredictable when it comes to hitting, so, you know, give him a good curveball to start the at-bat and then fastballs middle-out.
“And then our third batter, he’s a Haverford College [commit] catcher, and he just basically destroys any fastball that comes near the plate. But he also does not swing at curveballs. So you just pump the zone with curveballs until he finally has to swing at something. …
“So the first live AB I did against our starting lineup, I was doing really well and one of my teammates comes up to the plate. He’s going to college as a pitcher, but he played first base for us this year because he’s been hitting the ball really well. He’s a kid with a big mouth and you like having him on your team, and you never really want to say anything against him because of it. So I was like, ‘I really want to get him out … to strike him out.’ I had him 0-2 or 1-2, or something like that, and I was like, ‘I can’t give him anything good; he’s going to be all over it.’
“I threw this perfect front-door curveball that started in the middle of the plate and just died at his feet, like into him. And he started to swing, and I was like, ‘I got him, I got him’ — and he kind of just sticks the bat out there, and it goes and goes and goes all the way over.
“I was like, ‘God ---- it.’ Because it was such a beautiful pitch.”