- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2011

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. | Some fans didn’t even see the ball land in the new green bleachers behind the right-field wall at Virginia’s Davenport Field, their backs turned as they trudged up the stairs to the grandstand concourse on the way to their cars.

As soon as it left Cody Reine’s bat, they knew there was no point. It was the beefy Oklahoma slugger’s second home run of the day - fourth of the series - and the three-run blast made it an 11-0 OU lead in the eighth inning of last year’s deciding Super Regional game.

Reine, who also belted a three-run homer in the first, was just one of the hard-hitting Sooners who had abused the Cavaliers’ pitching. Cameron Seitzer hit a solo shot in the second. Tyler Ogle knocked one out in the fifth. Garrett Beuchele’s two-RBI double in the sixth stayed in the park, but barely.

“I was more frustrated in this ballgame than I’ve ever been before,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said when it was over.

Virginia won 51 games last season, spent 14 straight weeks atop the polls, hosted the Super Regional and seemed destined to go to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. But when it came to the most important game of the season, Oklahoma had the big bats. And more often than not in college baseball, the big bats win.

At least, that was the case in 2010, when balls flew out of parks at alarming rates. Less than a year later the game has changed drastically. While many across the country are lamenting the lack of offense, changes to the sport’s signature metal bats came at the perfect time to turn the 2011 Cavaliers into a somewhat unlikely Juggernaut.

The bats had long been the biggest difference between college and pro baseball, and increasingly over the years the chief complaint about the college game.

Traditionalists preferred the crack of a wooden bat to the metallic ping of the aluminum, and the speed at which the ball came off the metal bats created safety concerns. Then there was the scoring.

The NCAA began the process of taking some pop out of the bats in the late 1990s after the 1998 CWS featured 62 home runs in 14 games. USC and Arizona State combined to score 35 runs in the championship game.

But bat technology advanced faster than the rule books, and the past two seasons Division I teams averaged seven runs per game, the most in a decade. The average game time at the CWS was nearly four hours.

So this offseason, the NCAA worked with bat manufacturers and came up with new specifications designed to make metal bats, which are more economical for college programs, perform more like wood. The sweet spot shrunk to an area of about 3 inches on the barrel and new walls are thinner, reducing what’s called the “trampoline effect.”

So far, the bats seem to make a difference. In a midseason report, the NCAA said that scoring was down nearly 1.5 runs per game and teams were hitting half as many home runs, down to 0.47 per contest.

But the changes haven’t been universally popular, particularly among college coaches who worry that decreasing offense will make it more difficult to market the sport.

“I didn’t see what was wrong with the bats last year,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox told The Associated Press. “I thought last year there were great pitching performances, and if you could pitch, you could beat the hitter. There were just enough home runs to keep it interesting.”

Even now, the coach who has gained the most isn’t a fan of the changes.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘Why do you feel that way? This plays right into your style and you are benefiting from it,’ ” O’Connor said. “They are right. Selfishly, right now we are benefiting from it, there’s no question about that, and I’ll take it. But I don’t think it’s what’s best for our game. What was wrong with our game before? College baseball was on the rise. Why did we need to mess with it?”

Even as O’Connor explains his stance on the new bats, he can’t help but smile and acknowledge maybe this isn’t the year to complain.

His Cavaliers were expected to be good, ranked in the top 15 in preseason polls, but after losing so many offensive weapons to graduation and/or the amateur draft - Phil Gosselin, Jarrett Parker, Tyler Cannon and Dan Grovatt combined for 33 home runs and 280 RBI - few if any expected Virginia to dominate the way it has this season.

But what the Cavs had returning in droves were strong pitching arms. Facing bats with less pop than a year before, the staff, led by ace Danny Hultzen, a Bethesda product, has been dominant. Hultzen, who’s expected to be among the top picks in the June draft, admits the new bats give the advantage to pitchers.

“It’s definitely noticeable,” he said. “I’ve given up some rockets that have gone to the wall that probably would have gone out with those other bats. There have probably been a dozen times that I’ve thrown a pitch right down the middle, and they crushed it and I hung my head and I turned around to see how far it went and it’s getting caught in left field.”

Through 41 games, the Cavaliers had an ERA of 2.25, fifth in the nation, and no member of the Virginia staff who had pitched more than 11 innings had an ERA above 3.85.

Hultzen (1.17) and fellow starter Will Roberts (1.11), who threw the eighth perfect game in Division I history, against George Washington last month, were both 8-0. Closer Branden Kline of Frederick ranked third in the country with 11 saves and had an ERA of 1.57.

Pitching, combined with a lineup built for small ball, made top-ranked Virginia the team most able to take advantage of the new rules. The Cavaliers didn’t hit a homer until the 17th game, but were 16-1 after Steven Proscia’s bomb lifted them past Clemson on March 13, completing the first three-game sweep of the Tigers in program history.

Now, Virginia is 38-3, a .927 winning percentage in a sport where no team in 20 years has finished better than .889. O’Connor credits his offense (ranked seventh in the nation with 254 runs) for getting the job done even if the Cavaliers, who lead the ACC with 97 doubles, aren’t knocking the ball out of the park.

“I think you’d say the bats have helped us because we’ve got such great pitching and defense,” he said. “But I happen to think we have a really good offensive club, too. We’re hitting over .300, which not many teams are doing that. But because we have such dominant pitching we have benefited from it.”

The Cavaliers broke the ACC record with their 12th shutout Tuesday night, beating Radford 12-0, but as the season progresses Virginia finds itself in more high-scoring games. Could the Cavs’ newfound advantage be lessening as hitters adjust?

O’Connor doesn’t think so.

“If you go look at those box scores of those higher-scoring games, typically you will see a lot of walks,” O’Connor said. “There are plays that aren’t made that should have been made. When there is good, above-average pitching, and a team plays good defense the scores aren’t too high.”

But some of O’Connor’s players have a different opinion. After allowing seven or more runs just twice in their first 32 games, the Cavaliers have done so three times in the past two weeks.

“At this point, a lot of teams are getting used to the fact it’s not going to change,” sophomore outfielder Reed Gragnani said. “I think maybe some teams are trying to rely more on executing and moving guys over. Teams are conforming to a little more small ball when balls aren’t going out of the park as much.”

Others see it as the law of averages playing itself out.

“Everybody thinks all the bats are different, and that’s great for pitchers,” Kline said. “Well, the thing is with the bats, if you jam a guy he gets out, whereas last year you jammed him and the ball might leave the ballpark. But at the same time, you fool a guy and he’s out on his front foot and the ball will land between the second baseman and the right fielder. Last year, that would just carry to the right fielder. I know the numbers are down, but at the same time there are small things that even themselves out.”

Yet continuing to dominate from the mound seems a reasonable expectation for the Cavaliers, who already played the ACC’s top offensive teams - Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State. Of course, Virginia’s goals include more than a record-setting regular season.

“Omaha,” Hultzen said. “That’s been our goal every year. We say it every time we break a huddle. Last year was a tough way to go out giving up all those home runs. Maybe last year with the different bats it might have been different.”

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