THAT ONLY TWO nationally seeded teams advanced to the College World Series tells us that parity is alive and well in college baseball. Beyond that, it tells us that the state of the college game never has been better.
We might be enjoying the golden age of college baseball.
Granted, area baseball fans would enjoy the situation more if South Carolina and/or Clemson were playing in Omaha. That aside, the intriguing mix of participants should make for an exciting tournament for a national TV audience.
“A lot of people are interested in college baseball,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said, “and I think that is good for the game nationally.”
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That excitement and interest in the game no longer seems to be restricted to those programs that compete in the Southeastern Conference, which has dominated college baseball for the past couple of decades. Three teams in the College World Series hail from Texas, and one each from California, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Virginia.
The difference from 10 years ago is that outstanding baseball is played everywhere from Maryland to Florida, from Oregon to California and from Ohio to Texas.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “Every time you go into a game, it’s just changed a lot in the last 10 years, that’s for sure.”
In the past, the blame for having two of the top eight seeded teams in the College World Series would have been pinned on the tournament’s selection committee. Instead of questioning the validity of the committee’s work, we now understand that the game’s wealth has been spread across the game’s landscape.
Third-seeded Virginia and seventh-seeded TCU reached the College World Series. The other seeded teams – Oregon State, Florida, Indiana, Florida State, Louisiana-Lafayette and LSU –were eliminated.
All but one of the other teams to reach the College World Series probably could have been a legitimate top-eight seed. Here are the final RPIs for the eight College World Series teams: Virginia was No. 3, Vanderbilt was 8, TCU 11, Texas 12, Mississippi 14, Texas Tech 17, Louisville 20 and UC-Irvine 44.
Those numbers tell us the tournament field was deep in quality teams. Only UC-Irvine was a surprise since the Anteaters finished fourth in the Big West Conference, ended the season with seven consecutive losses and were seeded fourth in their regional tournament.
While Texas is making its 35th appearance in Omaha, Texas Tech is going for the first time. Mississippi is back in the College World Series after a 42-year drought.
It just does not get better than that for college baseball, a game that tweaked the rules enough over the past decade or so to level the playing field. Now, any team can win a single game (Charleston Southern defeated USC in the regular season), a short series (Notre Dame took two of three games from Clemson) or double-elimination regional (Kennesaw State advanced to a Super Regional).
The distribution of 11.7 scholarships over a limited roster has helped disperse the talent more evenly across many programs. More programs across the country have made a greater commitment to baseball through improved facilities.
Yet, according to Holbrook and Leggett, the biggest factor in the sweeping parity is the switch four seasons ago to an unleaded bat. The game that resembled slow-pitch softball needed the change. Unfortunately, the new bats have virtually eliminated the home run from the game.
That has become most evident on the game’s biggest stage. In the three College World Series played at spacious TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, nine home runs were hit in 2011, 10 in 2012 and three a year ago.
College baseball knows it needs for the rules to swing back some to create more offense. It is not unlike football moving its hashmarks closer to the middle of the field, or basketball adding a shot clock and 3-point line.
“It’s something detrimental (to the game),” Leggett says of the lack of offense. “When you turn on the TV and watch the MLB Network and you see all those highlights, they involve home runs. They involve exciting moments offensively, game-changing events.”
The next step to improve the college game is to introduce a different baseball next season. The new ball will remove most of the high seams from the current model. The expected result is that balls will fly better and result in more home runs and more offense.
“If there is more offense in the game, and they don’t overdo it, then I think it’s good for the game because it’s been awfully hard to score lately,” Holbrook said.
In the end, yet another improvement to a game that might be at its peak bodes well for the future of the sport.