New ball to be tested at cavernous stadium

Published 12:55 am Thursday, June 11, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The home run is back in college baseball, thanks to the new flat-seam ball put into play this year. Everyone now wants to see if the trend carries over to the College World Series in its cavernous stadium.

“Justifiably, all eyes will be on Omaha to see how the ball performs there. I know ours will be,” said Damani Leech, the NCAA director of championships and alliances.

Traditionally, the threat of the big inning has been part of the appeal of college baseball. But in the four years the CWS has been played at TD Ameritrade Park, only 25 home runs have been hit in 59 games. Just three were hit in each of the last two years.

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That could change when the CWS begins Saturday. The less wind-resistant flat-seam ball boosted scoring and home runs across the country all season, and 135 home runs were hit in regionals and super regionals compared with 87 homers for the entire tournament in 2014.

Yet to be seen is how much more offense is possible at TD Ameritrade Park, which is the home of Creighton University and has been site for three conference tournaments in addition to the CWS. A total of 79 balls have been hit out — there’s been one inside-the-park homer — in the 204 games since the stadium opened in April 2011.

That’s a rate of 0.19 home runs per team per game.

While the national home-run rate has risen from 0.39 to 0.55 this year, it held at 0.18 in the 31 games played at TD Ameritrade, though primary tenant Creighton is not built to hit for power.

The CWS will feature NCAA home run leaders in Arkansas’ Andrew Benintendi and Miami’s David Thompson, who have 19 apiece, and four other players who have hit 15 or more.

“If we don’t have more home runs, a better percentage at the College World Series, it’s not going to be the ball,” American Baseball Coaches Association executive director Craig Keilitz said. “It’s going to be the wind, which you can’t do anything about, or the fence.”

Keilitz added, “We have to protect what fans want to see. I don’t think anyone wants to see the crazy scores. But a lot of great moments in baseball revolved around home runs. I don’t want a ballpark to change a game. If a 3-hole hitter is a home-run hitter, and he squares it up and it doesn’t go out, in my opinion that changed a little bit of the game.”

Tim Corbin, coach of defending national champion Vanderbilt, said he would be extremely surprised if there aren’t a lot more than three home runs this year.

“I think the ball’s been the best adjustment college baseball’s made in quite some time,” he said. “I think this ball is a true indicator of offense in college baseball.”

The TD Ameritrade fences are 335 feet from the plate down the lines, 375 in the power alleys and 408 to center field. Those are identical to the dimensions at the old Rosenblatt Stadium, where there were an average of 33 home runs over the last 10 years the CWS was played there.

But Rosenblatt sat atop a hill and the field orientation made it so the wind typically blew out. TD Ameritrade Park sits low, and the prevailing summer winds blow in from the south. Another factor is that TD Ameritrade opened the same year the NCAA’s new bat standards went into effect. Bats simply aren’t as lively as the ones that produced so many homers at Rosenblatt.

Minutes after his team lost 3-2 to Virginia in a 15-inning CWS game last year, TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle blasted the combination of the toned-down bats and the big ballpark. “It’s a travesty what we’ve done to college baseball,” he said.

In an interview last week, Schlossnagle said he has high hopes for the new ball at TD Ameritrade.

“I think the biggest thing the ball has done, other than the home runs, is push the outfielders back,” he said. “It will do that in Omaha, too, so at least you can score from second base on a normal single to the outfield, which you couldn’t do last year.”

And if the homers don’t come?

Leech said reconfiguring the stadium would be a major undertaking and cost into the millions of dollars. If a change were required, Leech said, the fence could be moved in, home plate could be moved out, or a combination of the two could happen.

Leech said officials would analyze offensive numbers from the CWS this year and in 2016 before deciding what, if anything, might need to be done. He said he doubted additional changes would be made to the ball or bat based on the 15 to 17 games at the CWS each year, especially given the increase in offense seen in the thousands of games played with it so far.


AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Fort Worth, Texas, and AP Writer David Mercer in Champaign, Illinois, contributed.