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June 17, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – The aluminum bats will still ping but the baseball won’t travel quite as far when eight teams, including North Carolina and Virginia from the ACC, gather for the College World Series in Omaha.
That’s been the case all season with the adjustment the NCAA made in the bats. Technically, it is because of a reduction in the “Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution.” Translated, that means less power for the hitters. Balls that used to clear fences by a foot or two are now falling short and being caught.
That means the college game has changed, at least to some extent. Good pitching is at more of a premium than ever. Since runs are harder to come by, you may see more “small ball” – stealing bases, hit-and-run, sacrifice bunts – in this year’s CWS.
“I think the bats have really changed the game,” said Virginia coach Brian O’Connor. “There’s no question that it’s different than it was last year. You don’t see the home run totals, you don’t see the averages as high as they were in the past.”
Statistics would seem to support O’Connor. Of the eight teams that will play in Omaha, only two finished in the NCAA’s top 20 in batting average (Vanderbilt fifth at .319, Florida 16th at .311) and only one in the top 20 in home runs (Florida fifth with 67).
Individually, only two of the top 20 home runs hitters are in the CWS – Florida’s Mike Zunino, tied for ninth with 18 homers, and Vandy’s Aaron Westlake, 12th with 17.
Conversely, teams with good pitching have fared extremely well in the playoffs to this point. That’s hardly a surprise – good pitching usually carries a team far. But this season pitching has been particularly important to success.
Seven of the teams in the CWS were in the top 20 in team Earned Run Average, including four of the top five. Virginia is first at 2.26, Texas second at 2.27, Vanderbilt third at 2.38 and defending champion South Carolina fifth at 2.60.
Six of the top 20 pitchers in ERA are in Omaha.
Looking at it another way, Virginia’s hitters dropped from 61 home runs to 24 this season while the Cavalier pitchers allowed 65 home runs last season and just 23 this year.
“I think our pitching staff would have been very successful even under the old bats,” O’Connor said. “If you have good pitching, you have a chance to win at a very high level. I think we would have had a very good club no matter what the bats were because we’ve got good players and they’re very consistent.”
North Carolina’s power numbers didn’t change much – 45 home runs hit in 2010, 39 so far this year. But the Tar Heel pitching staff has dropped its home runs allowed from 50 to 23.
“If you look at our statistics across the board, there hasn’t been much change for us,” said UNC coach Mike Fox. “The variable is that guy using the bat. Everybody talks about the bat but I think you have to factor in who’s swinging it. If you have more experienced guys in the lineup they’re going to be stronger and be able to make the transition better (to the new bats).”
Fox said there’s no question home runs are down.
“I’ve seen some balls that I thought were going out and didn’t,” he said. “There’s definitely a difference in the bat – you have to hit it right on the sweet spot, no matter what brand you’re using, for it to jump out of the ball park.
“It’s a little more comforting maybe from a pitching standpoint. Sometimes if you have a lead of three or four runs it seems like it’s more than that and if you’re down three or four it seems it’s more than that. You can’t all of a sudden just put anybody in the lineup one through nine and hit a three-run home run to get you back in the game.”
Coaches are still forming opinions on whether the new bats are good for the game, and not all are convinced the change is good.
“I thought we had a great game last year,” said Clemson coach Jack Leggett. “I really thought we were where we needed to be in college baseball. It was exciting. There’s a little more excitement in the stadium with the ability for the long ball. I’m not real sure it has changed for the better.”
Fox also likes the idea of never feeling out of a game with the old bats.
“I think people still like to see offense and I don’t want our game to get so oriented to pitching and defense,” he said. “And every time I read about college baseball going to wood I just cringe. I think that would be a huge mistake.”
O’Connor pointed out that new bats have had affect that might not have been foreseen.
“The bats have changed the game for the average college baseball player,” he said. “The guys who can really hit and hit home runs, they’re still going to hit them. But the average college baseball player who maybe doesn’t have the opportunity to play beyond college, I think it has changed his experience.”
How all this will play out in the CWS remains to be seen. One thing hasn’t changed – North Carolina and Virginia will try to win the ACC’s elusive second national title. Despite its baseball success, the league’s only title came from Wake Forest in 1955.
The Tar Heels are in Bracket 1 and begin play Saturday at 2 p.m. against Vanderbilt. Texas and Florida will play Saturday at 7 in the other bracket game.
In Bracket 2, Virginia, the overall No. 1 seed, will meet Cal on Sunday at 2, and South Carolina plays Texas A&M at 7.
Bracket play is double elimination. The two bracket winners will meet in a best-of-three series starting June 27 to decide the champion.
The venue this year is brand-new TD Ameritrade Park, which replaces venerable Rosenblatt Stadium.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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