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Ole Miss will try to add to home run total at CWS

 

From Special Reports

 

OMAHA, Neb. -- The top NCAA administrator who oversees the College World Series isn't as anxious about the dearth of home runs at the CWS as others in the baseball community. 

 

NCAA managing director for championships and alliances Damani Leech told The Associated Press on Wednesday that a variety of factors came together to keep the ball from leaving TD Ameritrade Park before C.J. Hinojosa of Texas went deep Wednesday night in the seventh inning of the CWS' ninth game. 

 

At the same time, Leech hopes the move from a raised-seam to flat-seam ball in 2015 will nudge offensive numbers upward. Leech said it will take two years to know if the ball has the intended effect. 

 

"Until you get 295 teams using that ball throughout the year, you don't really know for sure what's going to happen," Leech said. 

 

Ole Miss (47-20) and No. 7 national seed TCU (48-17) will try to add to the home run total at 7 tonight (ESPN) when they meet in an elimination game. The winner will advance to face Virginia (51-14), which is 2-0, at 7 p.m. Friday. That team will have to beat the Cavaliers twice to reach the best-of-three title series. 

 

Ole Miss is expected to start junior right-hander Sam Smith (5-4, 3.45 ERA) against TCU. As a pitching staff, Ole Miss has allowed just three runs on 15 hits and six walks (11 strikeouts) in 17 2/3 innings in Omaha. Unfortunately, the Rebels have just six hits in 57 at-bats and have scored three runs.  

 

Part of the offensive outage has been the wind that has been blowing in from center field at TD Ameritrade Park. Ole Miss also has faced two pitchers -- Virginia's Nathan Kirby and Texas Tech's Ryan Moseley -- who have delivered strong starts. 

 

Besides Vanderbilt, which has scored a combined 11 runs in victories against Louisville and UC Irvine, Texas (six) is the only other team to have scored more than five runs in Omaha. Texas used a home run by Hinojosa, the first at this year's event, to eliminate UC Irvine 1-0 in its third game of the event. 

 

Ole Miss junior first baseman Sikes Orvis, who had 14 home runs entering the CWS, said the wind has made hitting at TD Ameritrade Park, which is 408 feet to center field and 375 to the right- and left-center field alleys just like Rosenblatt Stadium, the old home to the CWS, a challenge. 

 

"We knew it was big, but we have been having a hurricane coming in straight from center field, so it's been tough," said Orvis, who is second in the Southeastern Conference and seventh nationally in home runs. 

 

"Personally, it's knocking me off my game a little bit. When I get in hitter's counts, I usually try to pull something or drive something, but if I do that, it's just going to get knocked down, so I have been trying to go the other way and hit line drives. We'll adjust. Everybody has to deal with this; it's not just us. It's made for a lot of low-scoring games, so I'm sure the fans are ready for some offense." 

 

The park and the wind has been good for pitchers, particularly those who have filled up the strike zone, In 91 1/3 innings (17 starts), Smith has allowed 104 hits and 18 walks. He has struck out 51.  

 

"Use the ballpark to your advantage and fill up the zone," Smith said. "Guys are going to hit balls hard, but somehow they get caught in the wind. We have a really fast outfield, so they get caught a lot of times." 

 

Since the CWS moved to TD Ameritrade Park from Rosenblatt Stadium, 23 home runs have been hit -- nine in 2011, 10 in 2012, three in 2013, and one this year. 

 

Homers across Division I have declined to rates not seen since the wooden-bat era because of dialed-back bats that entered the game in 2011. 

 

UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie has called the bat change a "nightmare," and TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said "it's just a travesty what we've done to college baseball." 

 

Leech said this year's CWS shouldn't be defined by the lack of home runs. 

 

"I think this can turn into a runaway train from a dialogue standpoint and really take away from the great performances of the student-athletes we've had," he said. "Just because there aren't any home runs doesn't mean it's not great baseball." 

 

On paper, this year's CWS didn't figure to be a homer fest. Among the top 200 draft picks here, eight are pitchers and four are hitters. Mississippi, with 42, is among four teams here that have hit 29 homers this season. There were six such teams each of the previous three years, including Florida squads that hit 69 in 2011 and 75 in 2012. 

 

Another factor has been weather. South winds prevail in Omaha this time of year, but they've been unusually gusty the last week, blowing up to 30 mph. 

 

"You look at the Big Ten tournament here, and they had eight (homers) in a span of 13 games," Leech said. "So same ballpark, roughly same time of year, a different set of teams, but a completely different set of results in terms of home runs." 

 

Before Hinojosa's home run, 115 innings had passed since Mississippi State's Hunter Renfroe hit the last CWS home run, on June 21, 2013. 

 

Leech said if the flat-seam ball doesn't have the desired effect, it's possible the ball could be changed to have a harder core or bats could be tweaked again to make them more lively. 

 

"The ball coming off the bat at increased speed," Leech said, "there are safety concerns everybody needs to be aware of if we move down that path." 

 

Moving in the fences at TD Ameritrade, he said, would be a massive undertaking because it would affect angles of outfield seats and could require changes to the concourse. 

 

Minnesota coach John Anderson, a former member of the NCAA baseball committee who worked on the design of TD Ameritrade Park, said the stadium probably would have been built differently if the impact of the new bat standards had been known during the planning stages. 

 

Leech, who also worked on the stadium design, didn't respond to Anderson's comment directly. "What I will say is there was nothing at that time that gave us any indication that the winds, which we think is the predominant factor, were going to play as significant a role in the nature of the game at this ballpark vs. Rosenblatt." 

 

Besides Vanderbilt, which has scored a combined 11 runs in wins over Louisville and UC Irvine, no team has scored more than five runs in Omaha, as all eight teams have combined to average just 2.7 runs through eight games. 

 

"We knew it was big, but we have been having a hurricane coming in straight from center field, so it's been tough," said junior first baseman Sikes Orvis, who is second in the Southeastern Conference and seventh nationally with 14 home runs on the season. 

 

"Personally, it's knocking me off my game a little bit. When I get in hitter's counts, I usually try to pull something or drive something, but if I do that, it's just going to get knocked down, so I have been trying to go the other way and hit line drives. We'll adjust. Everybody has to deal with this; it's not just us. It's made for a lot of low-scoring games, so I'm sure the fans are ready for some offense." 

 

Austin Miller of OleMissSports.com contributed to this report.

 

 

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