By James Bewers
Picking up one of the new baseballs introduced into the college game this season, the difference is hardly noticeable.
With lowered seams, the balls were only slightly altered from the ones used previously to replicate the ball used in the professional ranks. Ideally, the flat-seamed balls would offset the Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution standard, or BBCOR, used for today’s bats. BBCOR bats provided significantly less pop than the Ball Exit Speed Ratio standard, or BESR, used prior to 2011.
Hence, 2011 brought the end to a certain ping one would hear from a bat, and the ball wouldn’t travel as far or as fast. It was all in the name of safety, but home runs became few and far between. So much so, the number of home runs per game had reached a record low of 0.39 by 2014.
The new balls, though, have revived the art of the long ball, bumping the national average by 15 percent before regionals began. In the regionals, a combined 105 home runs were hit in 101 games, which were 18 more than the 135 games played in last year’s regionals.
With power-hitting teams such as LSU and UNC-Wilmington, who both rank in the top 50 in the nation in home runs, it would make sense if a few of those 105 blasts came from the Baton Rouge Regional, but that wasn’t the case. The regional tallied zero dingers.
For the Tigers, the lack of home runs may not have been glaring if they were producing runs in other ways. But after LSU’s 10-3 win against Lehigh in the opening game of the regional, it scored just four runs total in its final two wins of the regional against UNCW. The Tigers were pleased with two shutout outings on the mound by freshman Alex Lange and sophomore Jared Poche’, but the normally high-powered offense felt unsatisfied heading into the super regionals.
“We can win the 2-0 game,” said designated hitter Chris Sciambra before the super regionals. “But, as an offense, we’re going to take it upon ourselves that we don’t want that to happen again. We didn’t want it to happen last weekend. We don’t ever want to go out and win a 2-0 game, even if we’re facing [SEC Pitcher of the Year Carson] Fulmer from Vanderbilt or someone like that. We still want to go put up 5, 6 or 7 runs no matter who we are facing or what the game is.”
It seemed like LSU may have righted the offensive woes of the regional early on against Louisiana-Lafayette in game one of the super regionals. Left fielder Jake Fraley ripped an RBI double into left field in the bottom of the first and later launched a two-run homer in the bottom of third to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
Fraley’s effort gave Lange a needed cushion as he slammed the door on the Ragin’ Cajun offense through his first five innings of work. By the sixth inning, though, the Tigers had just four hits total against ULL freshman Wyatt Marks and had left runners on first and third to end the previous inning. Even worse, shortstop and three-hole hitter Alex Bregman continued his slump from the regional with a 0-for-4 outing in game one of the super regional.
With LSU offense going cold, ULL pounced on a few mistake pitches from Lange his next four inning, including a game-tying, pinch-hit solo homer by Brenn Conrad to knot the score at 3 runs apiece in the top of the ninth. Conrad’s shot ended Lange’s outing and left the Tigers searching for answers.
Knowing he was on deck in the bottom half of the inning, Sciambra turned his focus on providing that answer.
“Alex kept us in that game,” Sciambra said. “We really made it way too tough on ourselves and on him to keep us in that game like that. He did it last weekend. He was able to go the distance, but this weekend he wasn’t. Right whenever he gave up that swing, I knew I was going to get an at-bat in the ninth inning. I stopped being a fan for a second – ready to cheer him on for a complete game – and got my mind ready to go up there and hit.”
Although he was a little overzealous on two previous swings in his at-bat, Sciambra’s mind was ready when ULL reliever Will Bacon left a fastball over the plate. The Catholic High graduate demolished the 2-2 pitch over the right-field wall, lifting the Tigers to the crucial game one victory.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 7, 2015
Sciambra’s heroics called back other walk offs in LSU postseason history, including Warren Morris’ two-run homer to win the 1996 College World Series. But Sciambra, a life-long LSU fan, thinks his game-winner was closer to someone he played with at LSU.
“Maybe I joined the [former LSU catcher and infielder] Tyler Moore club,” Sciambra said with a smile. “You prepare your whole life for an at-bat in a situation like that.”
Game two may not have ended dramatically like its predecessor, but there was another blast that meant nearly as much as Sciambra’s did to the Tigers at its point in the game.
Another pitcher’s duel between Poche’ and Cajuns’ freshman Gunner Leger silenced bats through the first six innings. Leger, a freshman All-American, didn’t overpower LSU hitters but kept them off balance with an effective changeup.
“[Leger] was throwing changeups, breaking balls and fastballs on both sides of the plate, and just really competing,” Bregman said. “He’s not going to overpower you with fastball velocity, but he’s a competitor. That’s why he is having a great year this year.”
But a mistake pitch, like the night before, changed the outcome of the game, and it was, again, an LSU veteran providing the answer.
Senior catcher Kade Scivicque crushed a 1-0 fastball well beyond the wall in left field to give LSU 1-0 lead. Scivicque’s homer not only gave Poche’ breathing room, but sparked the LSU offense for four runs in the following inning, including a two-RBI single by Bregman to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 8, 2015
“It always feels good when you square up a ball and hit a home run, but just hitting the base hit through the middle, hitting a line drive double or something like that means just as much,” Scivique said.
As Scivicque said, the base hit through the middle meant just as much to the Tigers and Bregman, who was 0-for-15 in the postseason before his run-scoring base hit. As a natural leader on the team, the relief and excitement on the junior shortstop’s face was noticeable as he rounded first base.
“We’ve been playing well offensively all year, and we haven’t swung the bats like we’re capable of during the postseason as a whole,” Bregman said. “I take a lot of responsibility for that.”
Even with the super regional title, certainly, Bregman and LSU won’t be content with the sluggish offense when it arrives in Omaha for the College World Series this weekend. But when offense came against ULL, it went a long way.
The Tigers can thank the new baseballs for that.