June 18, 2014 10:52:07 AM
Hunter Renfroe has to be smiling.
Nearly one year ago, Renfroe hit the last home run in the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park to lead the Mississippi State baseball team to a victory against Oregon State. It will be interesting to see how long Renfroe remains the answer to a trivia question as another power-starved CWS approaches its second week of action in Omaha, Nebraska.
Whether it is the configuration of TD Ameritrade Park or the blustery winds that have outfielders playing Little League depths, this year's annual event has been a showcase for fine pitching, sacrifice flies, and stolen bases, not home runs. Consider Ole Miss, which defeated TCU 2-1 on Tuesday to stay alive in the double-elimination event, has only six hits in two games. The Rebels entered the eight-team event hitting .303 and with seven regulars hitting above .290. They also arrived in Omaha with 42 home runs, the most of any of the CWS participants. But that statistic has been rendered useless in the first four days of the event because only 22 home runs have been hit at TD Ameritrade Park since the event moved there. Last season, when MSU advanced to the championship series to face UCLA, only three home runs were hit.
It's not surprising the numbers are down from the days of the "ping" from the aluminum bats that rang out at Rosenblatt Stadium. Earlier this week, UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie told The Associated Press college baseball overreacted when it implemented new bat standards. According to the NCAA's midseason statistical trend report, The Associated Press reported the Division I batting average of .268 and per-team scoring of 5.14 runs a game this season were lowest since the wooden-bat era of 1973. The per-team home-run average of 0.36 a game was lowest since at least 1969. Compare that to 1998, when Division I teams batted .306, scored 7.12 runs, and averaged 1.06 home runs a game, all records, and you have a disparity that makes today's game look totally different. We don't have to go back to the days when teams combined to hit nine home runs in a game, like in the 1998 national championship game that ended with Gillespie's Southern California team beating Arizona State 21-14, but we have to find a better middle ground, one that celebrates situational hitting and execution and rewards hitters when they capitalize on a pitcher's mistake or find the sweet spot in their bats.
This year, though, the CWS again is proving to be a different brand of baseball from the one teams play all season, even in a new park that has the same dimensions (408 feet to center field and 375 feet to the power alleys) as Rosenblatt. It's hard to imagine moving a stadium three miles south can play that much of a difference, but the wind patterns at the new park have combined with the ping-less bats to form a home run-killing formula. The Omaha World-Herald reported last year TD Ameritrade was designed and built to face the prevailing south winds, while Rosenblatt, like most parks around the country, faced northeast. Some also have speculated the downtown air is heavier and fly balls, even trailing a north wind, don't carry.
A new baseball could be the answer. Last November, the NCAA cleared the way for teams to use new balls in 2015. The Division I baseball committee's unanimous vote allowed conferences to adopt the new ball for regular-season play. The ball, shown by researchers to fly farther, also will be used in the NCAA tournament. The change was voted in after reports suggested many college coaches didn't want to alter the balls to make their coefficient of restitution, or COR, (the higher the COR, the farther the ball travels) similar to the ones used in Major League Baseball. The argument for balls with flat seams is pitchers won't be able to throw breaking balls as easily and that they could travel an additional 15 feet, which could mean more home runs.
Let's hope the new balls will help reduce the frustration of hitters like TCU first baseman Kevin Cron, who appeared to crush a pitch from Virginia's Brandon Waddell on Tuesday only to see the fly ball die a meager death well before the warning track. ESPN's cameras caught Cron smiling as he rounded first base and saw a ball he thought he hit well caught.
With sluggers like Cron left only to wonder what they have to do to hit a home run, the focus has turned to manufacturing runs. On Tuesday, pinch runner Zach Davis turned into Texas Tech's secret weapon when he stole second base and then, going against all baseball "rules", stole third base. The gamble paid off, though, as Anthony Lyons' sacrifice fly helped the Red Raiders tie the game.
In the ninth, though, Ole Miss again showed the kind of execution that rightly should be on display at a sport's signature event. It didn't matter Justin Gatlin was hitting well below .200, which is commonly referred to as "the Mendoza line." The Tupelo native didn't overswing and reached out and served a pitch to right field to help the Rebels earn their first victory at the CWS since 1969.
The hit came on the heels of another fine piece of hitting by Holt Perdzock. Pinch hitting in the seventh inning, the left-handed hitting Perdzock went with an outside pitch and let his hands do the work. The result was a bounding ball that went snuck inside the third-base line into left field for a hit that gave Ole Miss a 1-0 lead.
Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen is right that teams should be able to play strong defense, to use strong pitching, and to execute small-ball approaches to have success, especially in spacious environments like Dudy Noble Field and TD Ameritrade. But college baseball has to find a way to bring the home run back. After all, hitting home runs is a bigger part of baseball than stealing third base and hitting a sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth inning.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at: ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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