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June 18, 2012
Changes lift college baseball
OMAHA, Neb. -- The people who oversee college baseball say that the game is healthier, more competitive and attractive to fans than ever before, athletically and academically.
College baseball has been dominated by schools in the South and West regions of the country for the past 15-20 years, but the participation of Kent State (Ohio) and Stony Brook (New York) in this year's College World Series is viewed as a sign that parity is alive and well.
"What's taken place this season and what's taken place in the tournament is really heartening to those of us who love college baseball," said Kyle Kallander, the Big South Conference Commissioner and Chairman of the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee.
"Look at the field we have here for the CWS. It just shows any program in the country can compete for the national championship, which is wonderful for the sport and wonderful for the programs that really care about college baseball."
What produced the parity? The toned-down bats have helped by putting a premium on pitching, speed and defense rather than hitting. Simply, the days of "GorillaBall" are gone, and likely won't return for a long time. In addition, several reforms instituted a few years ago in order to boost the sport's APR scores have had the desired effect.
"A lot of the actions we've taken over the last several years weren't necessarily meant to address the competitive side of baseball," Kallander said. "But what's happened is those things have resulted in a lot of parity."
Roster limits (maximum of 35 players) and scholarship restrictions (25 percent rule) and the pitch clock were three important changes. In addition, transfers are now required to sit out a year, like football and basketball players when they change schools. As a result, the available talent pool is spread out among more teams.
"All of those things really served to not only address the academic issues, which it has, but they have really helped the competitiveness of baseball," Kallander said.
But few reforms have produced the type of seismic changes in college baseball as the weakened bats, which possess far less "trampoline effect" than the old bats. Scoring and home runs are way down in college baseball, the games are shorter (TV executives are pleased) and the gap between the haves and have-nots has diminished considerably.
"The main thing about the bat is our coaches like it," American Baseball Coaches Association Director Dave Keiltz said. "We don't survey the players, but we surveyed the coaches. Eighty-four percent of the Division I coaches said they either liked the bat or it was acceptable. Only 16 percent said they didn't like the bat. In Division II and III, it was even greater than that. So it's almost a non-issue."
Kent State coach Scott Stricklin has built his team on pitching and defense, and is an avid supporter of the new bats.
"Every coach here is going to tell you they've bunted more than they ever have before," Stricklin said. "We all still love the three-run home run, but it doesn't happen as often. So, you're going to have to execute, you have to play defense and your pitcher has to throw strikes. I don't know if we'd have been here 10 years ago with the bats and tennis rackets we were using before. But now the game is a better game, at least for me. It's more enjoyable. You've got to coach, and you've got to execute."
What's the big change for 2013? The Division I baseball committee has altered the RPI formula to give more weight to away wins, another change that could boost teams based in the Midwest and Northeast, since they tend to play most of their early-season games in opposing ballparks.
"We're weighting away wins heavier, similar to what basketball has done in the past," Kallander said. "Again, it should help a lot of schools that traditionally have to go on the road early in the season to play. We want to recognize what they're doing with their programs and try to level that playing field a little bit."
MARZILLI MAGIC: When the 2012 season started, few expected Evan Marzilli to equal the performance of Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field. However, Marzilli has come close, and became a household name with his spectacular diving catch in the eighth inning of Saturday's 7-3 opening-round victory over SEC East rival Florida. In 63 games, Marzilli has committed only two errors for a .989 fielding percentage, with four assists and 168 putouts.
"We always thought Evan was a good player. As fall practice unfolded, the coaches said, 'We don't think we've lost anything,'" USC coach Ray Tanner said. "Jackie was a cut above. Losing him, we knew Evan would do a good job in center. He's pretty good. That was a great catch. I had a great vantage point. I thought it was going to be a double. But he ran a great route and laid out. That was one of the greatest catches I've seen."
Marzilli's outstanding catch overshadowed a solid offensive night for the junior from Cranston, R.I. He had a pair of doubles and scored one run to spark USC's 12-hit attack. The Gamecocks had one hit in each of the first four innings off Florida starter Brian Johnson, a first-round draft pick earlier this month, but nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.
"When you're struggling like that in the beginning of the game to get runs across, you just have to be patient," Marzilli said. "Brian's a great pitcher. You're not going to score 10 runs off him. You just have to chip away with what you get. I thought we made some good adjustments and kept staying aggressive and kept swinging it."
FLORIDA STATE ENDS CINDERELLA RUN: Florida State ended Stony Brook's storybook season with a 12-2 victory on Sunday in an elimination game at TD Ameritrade Park. The Seawolves finished 52-15 after entering the College World Series as the sentimental favorite, following their stunning Super Regional victory at LSU last weekend. But they were outscored 21-3 in their two losses in Omaha.
After scoring a run in the bottom of the first, the Seminoles drained most of the drama from the contest with a six-run third inning, all with two outs. An RBI double and throwing error produced the first three runs of the inning before Justin Gonzalez launched a three-run homer to left, the initial multi-run homer of the CWS.
Florida State added two runs in the fourth on a homer by Devon Travis for a 9-0 lead. Stony Brook scored both of its runs in the bottom of the fifth, but consecutive RBI doubles plated three runs for FSU in the top of the sixth to close out the scoring.
"Hitting the ball out of the park today was quite a feat, and Devon and Gonzo did it," FSU coach Mike Martin said. "Those are tremendous lifts when you can get five runs with two swings of the bat. Those were pleasant surprises because of the conditions (wind was blowing 24 miles per hour). If you ask either one, they were both trying to hit a line drive and their ability took over."
GOOD YEAR ACADEMICALLY TOO: Not only has USC achieved on the diamond by reaching the College World Series for the third straight year, the Gamecocks have flourished in the classroom as well. They compiled a team GPA of 3.052 in the spring semester and saw two players honored with prestigious awards.
Pitcher Michael Roth, a ninth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, won the President's Award, the most prestigious honor given to a USC athlete, as well as the SEC Boyd McWhorter Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award and being named SEC Baseball Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
But Roth wasn't the lone Gamecock baseball player to achieve the highest levels of academic success in 2011-12. Sophomore infielder Erik Payne was the recipient of the Elite 89 award for the College World Series. Payne received the honor at the opening ceremonies on Thursday.
Founded by the NCAA, the Elite 89 recognizes academic and athletic excellence by presenting an award to the athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average among the players participating at the finals site for each NCAA championship.
Payne, majoring in international business, currently carries a 3.897 GPA. He had the key hit in Saturday's 7-3 victory over Florida when he rifled a bases-clearing triple into right-center to score Adam Matthews, Christian Walker and Marzilli, and give USC a 3-2 lead over the Gators, an advantage it wouldn't relinquish.
* USC's offensive statistical leaders after six NCAA tournament games, as it prepares for tonight's winner's bracket game against Arkansas:
Batting average: Chase Vergason (.412)(7-for-17)
Runs: Adam Matthews (7)
Hits: LB Dantzler, Evan Marzilli (9)
Homers: Adam Matthews, Christian Walker (1)
RBI: Chase Vergason, Adam Matthews (6)
Total bases: LB Dantzler, Evan Marzilli (11)
Slugging percentage: Chase Vergason (.529)
Walks: Chase Vergason, Joey Pankake (5)
On-base percentage: Chase Vergason (.522)
* Arizona took control of Bracket 1 with a 4-0 victory over UCLA in a battle of Pac-12 rivals on Sunday. Arizona pitcher Konner Wade spun a complete-game five-hitter, striking out four and walking none while throwing 109 pitches. He retired the first 14 UCLA batters he faced in the game before allowing a two-out single in the top of the fifth. Arizona mustered just six hits off three UCLA pitchers, but strung together five straight hits for all four runs in the bottom of the fourth.
* UCLA will face Florida State at 8 p.m. on Tuesday in an elimination game, with the winner advancing to meet Arizona for a spot in the national championship series, which is scheduled to begin on Sunday.
* UCLA and Arizona tied for the Pac-12 regular-season title this year with identical 20-10 conference records. The last time two Pac-12 teams shared a regular-season championship and then met in the CWS was in 1980. The Bruins won the regular-season series 2-1, but as USC-Florida proved on Saturday, the results in Omaha often vary from the regular season.
* Florida State's Travis became the first player in four years to collect three hits, three runs scored and three RBI in a single game since 2008.
* Florida State freshman right-hander Mike Compton (12-2) allowed six hits and two runs in six innings to become the fourth Seminole freshman ever to win at least 12 games in one season. He leads all freshmen nationally with 12 wins.
* Even though Stony Brook lost back-to-back games in Omaha for the first time since late March, the Seawolves still lead the nation with 52 wins and currently is the lone program to reach the 50-win plateau in 2012.
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