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June 12, 2014

College World Series finally onto baseball-like scores

One would think those running the College World Series would finally have baseball down pat. One would think.

The history of the College World Series is one of slugfests, where final scores resembled the outcomes of football games. There have been battles where the sight of someone rounding the bases and scoring a run was dramatic enough to produce long-and-loud cheers and demands for an instant replay.

Who can forget that classic on June 6, 1998, when Southern Cal defeated Arizona State 21-14 in the championship game? The teams combined for nine home runs. Fourteen games were played that year in Omaha, and 62 balls were sent flying out of Rosenblatt Stadium.

The 2001 College World Series was another one to remember, especially for Tennessee fans. The Vols opened play losing to Miami 21-13, but came back to beat Georgia 19-12. Tennessee kept up its double digit scoring in beating Southern California 10-2, before falling out in a repeat matchup with Miami, 12-6.

Talk about softball-type scores.   

The college game had become so lopsided in favor of the offense that the best athletes were privately saying they wanted nothing to do with pitching. Some had stared calling the game “Gorilla Ball.”

That led for a cry to do something about the aluminum bats the college players used, instead of the old-style wooden ones mandated for professional players. New bat standards accepted in 2011 made offensive outbursts much less common. The standards were designed to reduce power, and offensive production has nose-dived.

When winners of the eight super-regionals square off in TD Ameritrade Park beginning this weekend, fans will see a totally different game from what they witnessed just 10 years ago. “Small ball” – bunts, sacrifices and base stealing – has replaced guys armed with metal rocket launchers.

And, sure enough, some fans aren’t too thrilled with that, either.

Pitching dominated last year’s tournament, when hurlers combined for four shutouts in 14 games. In addition, there were six games where losing teams scored only one run.

If tinkering with the bats took too much offense out of the game, a rule adopted for the 2015 college season may be the way to inject more hitting and scoring into it. The change is small, but the impact could be big.

Next year college teams will replace the raised-seam ball with a flat-seam ball. Researchers have noted that the flat-seam ball travels farther and faster than the raised-seem, perhaps by as much as 10 to 20 feet in the same conditions.  The reason, they believe, is that the flat-seam ball faces less wind resistance.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is that teams from the warmer climates dominate the field. In this year's College World Series, three teams will hail from Texas – Texas, Texas Tech and Texas Christian. Snow and ice aren’t a concern at University of California - Irvine and Mississippi when their spring seasons roll around, either. Meanwhile,  the three other teams all reside south of the Mason-Dixon line – Vanderbilt, Louisville and Virginia.

The growing popularity of college baseball can be traced to several factors. One of the biggest was the decision by ESPN and other conference networks to televise games. Exposure helps. Many colleges have also invested in new stadiums and practice facilities.

While basketball has suffered from one-and-done rules that allow freshmen to turn pro just a year out of high school, Major League Baseball operates differently. High school graduates are eligible to sign a pro contract, but once they enter college they can’t be drafted again until after their third year. That gives college coaches more experienced, seasoned players to work into their starting lineups.

No team is a clear-cut favorite to win this year’s championship. Tradition seems to favor Texas (43-19) as the Longhorns make their 35th appearance in the College World Series.

Louisville has the best record at 50-15. Virginia is just a game behind at 49-14.

U.C. Irvine will be a threat any time Andrew Morales takes the mound. If he gets the start against Texas, history might not be enough for the Longhorns and their coach, Augie Garrido.

The double-elimination tournament starts June 14 and should end no later than June 25.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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