By Rob Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Warren Slack hung a slider and his head in short order. He watched the swing, checked out the ball off the bat and presumed it was bound for Walker Avenue.
"Even asked for a new ball," the UNCG pitcher said, referring to the hurler's melancholy request of the umpire.
Much to Slack's surprise – shock, really – the fly ball took its last breaths on the edge of the warning track. Welcome to college baseball in 2011. It's a "new" game these Spartans seem to like.
The reverberation of the ball off college baseball's new, toned-down bat is more U2 than AC/DC, and the Spartans are more than OK with that. They started Southern Conference play with a three-game sweep of Western Carolina, and with a victory over Appalachian State on Friday, they'd be 4-0 for the first time in 11 years. Chalk it up to chalking up less.
"We built this team on pitching and defense and so it's not a negative for us," coach Mike Gaski said.
Gaski was on the NCAA committee that recommended the new bat, which has less of a trampoline effect than its circus-act precursors. And while it's too soon to make definitive statements, the early returns seem beneficial to a team that plays in the SoCon's largest park and routinely produces pitchers taken in the draft's first 10 rounds.
Rules changes don't always produce the immediate and stark results fans believe they do. In many cases and many sports, the revolution is gradual and can only be ascertained with data in bulk. Not so here. Through games of March 14, SoCon teams had already thrown seven more shutouts than they did in all of last season. The league-wide ERA was 4.19 – down an astonishing 36 percent from what it had been only a year earlier (5.99).
Think steroid detection has changed Major League Baseball lately? The composite ERA in the American League was 4.14 last year, down from 4.63 in 2004. That's an 11-percent dip, and it's over a seven-year inclusive span. Take that and multiply it a few times and you get the impact the college game is now witnessing.
To think of it another way: Imagine college basketball's 3-point line going out another three to five feet.
Through 17 games, UNCG had 11 victories and six home runs. Until recently, that was unheard of. And even the hitters don't seem to mind.
"The fundamentals of the game come into play 10 times more with these new bats," said sophomore first baseman Trevor Edwards, who leads the team with 10 RBI. "All these things are much more reinforced now.
"It's a good direction that college baseball is going in (rather than) having batters get one-handed home runs. That strays from the game's roots."
Just take one look at UNCG Baseball Stadium, and you'll begin to form some guesses about how and why this is playing out so far. The facility's dimensions, which stretch 340 feet down both lines and 405 to dead center, are such that the inherent power reduction takes homers away rather than simply mitigating the "Wow" factor that stems from how far the ball clears the fence.
Slack, 3-0 on the year, has seen the benefits in all of his starts in the new season. In his most recent game, he recorded 11 outs on fly balls to the outfield.
Diversity of pitch offerings – a new slider, for example – helps. And mentally, it's comforting to know you really can let the batter make contact.
Something amazing happened on Wednesday night. UNCG claimed a 1-0 victory over Princeton, its first triumph by that minimalist score in three years and two weeks.
The result kept the Spartans going from their auspicious league start, marked by last weekend's home sweep of Western Carolina. UNCG didn't sweep a weekend series at all last year, and it prepares to host Appalachian, 0-6 in the SoCon.
"We need to come out with a good effort," Edwards said. "We need to put a hurt on these guys. A sweep of Western Carolina is good, but you need to follow that up."
The first 100 UNCG students attending Friday's game will receive a free hot dog or hamburger. Call it food for thought about a game that now requires more brain than bash.
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