OMAHA, Neb - Ray Tanner answered the question rather flippantly, yet an underlying message came through loud and clear. His answer was to a question about the newly adopted rules for the College World Series whereby umpires will be permitted to use video replay to examine close home run calls.
Tanner dismissed its effect on his South Carolina baseball team because it does not hit home runs these days.
Tanner spoke minutes after USC clinched its Super Regional victory against Oklahoma, sending the Gamecocks to their third consecutive College World Series in quest of an equal number of national championships.
Truth be known, the clinching, 5-1 win on Monday supported Tanner’s claim. USC did not hit a home run in either of the Super Regional wins and has hit two long balls in eight postseason games including those played in the SEC tournament.
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Beyond that, Monday’s win served notice that Tanner’s teams have successfully and officially converted over the past two seasons from Long Ball players to Short Ball players, or Small Ball, if you will.
The transformation has not come easy for Tanner, long a disciple of Earl Weaver and the former Baltimore Orioles manager’s school of living — and winning — by the three-run homer.
“Quite honestly, I’m not a big fan. I’m not a big fan of small ball,” Tanner said, “but I am a big fan of winning. You try to put your team in a position to win whenever you can, so I’ve had to do that a little bit more.”
The NCAA’s adoption of new, powerless bats for the 2011 season has changed the game dramatically. Tanner said statistics show that fly balls carried 25 feet farther with the old bats.
The statistics do not lie. In Tanner’s first 14 seasons at USC, his teams cranked 90 or more home runs in a season 11 times. His 2011 and 2012 teams have combined for 87 home runs, including 41 for this season’s club, the lowest total for a USC team since the 1994 club hit 36.
“We used to have three DHs on the team, three guys I could outrun to first base,” Tanner said. “That has gone by the wayside. You’ve got to get some runners in here. You’ve got to try to play the game, go from first to third and play some defense.”
Tanner’s lineup these days includes power threats in first baseman Christian Walker and third baseman LB Dantzler. Walker leads the team with 11 home runs and Dantzler has nine, numbers that reflect the power drought in the college game.
This might be the first of Tanner’s USC teams to have some rabbits in the lineup. Tanner English possesses blazing speed, and a step behind him are fellow outfielders Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews.
While USC is not a team that steals a lot of bases — perhaps it will take another season or two to incorporate that aspect into Tanner’s attack — it bunts a lot, both for base hits and to advance a runner with a sacrifice. USC’s sacrifice bunt totals have gone from 33 to 58 to 69 to 62 over the past four seasons.
Bill James, the noted sabermatician who studies these things, concluded long ago that the sacrifice bunt is a wasted out and not conducive to winning baseball at the major-league level. Tanner agrees, but also believes it is an effective tool at the amateur level because defenses are more likely to make mistakes in fielding bunts.
In the clinching win against Oklahoma, USC’s new style of play first hurt the Gamecocks, then won the game. Matthews and Chase Vergason were caught stealing in the second and fifth innings of a scoreless game.
In the seventh inning, English followed a leadoff double by Connor Bright with a nicely placed bunt to Oklahoma first baseman Evan Mistich, who promptly threw the ball past third base in an attempt to gun down T.J. Costen, who was running for Bright. English reached second base on the throwing error, advanced to third on Vergason’s sacrifice bunt and scored on a wild pitch.
In the eighth inning, English perfectly executed a push bunt past the pitcher’s mound for a two-out single that saw Matthews scurry home from third base. Vergason then powered a double into left-center field, scoring Dantzler and English.
Small Ball never looked better at Carolina Stadium.
Perhaps no one noticed more than Sunny Golloway, who conceded that his Oklahoma team simply did not execute its version of Small Ball as well as USC did.
“That’s how they’re built. They’re good one through nine (in the batting order),” Golloway said of USC. “They don’t have holes like we do. They’re going to keep putting pressure on you until the dam breaks, and it finally broke.”
Tanner said his team plays that way because it is not the kind of club that can take an opponent behind the woodshed and administer a whooping with fence-bashing regularity. It wins by playing aggressively, attempting to make things happen in smaller ways, and by working for a single run at a time.
It might not be the style Tanner likes for his teams to play. But it is hard to argue with the results.
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES
WHO: USC (45-17) vs. Florida (47-18)
WHERE: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.
WHEN: Saturday, 9 p.m.
GETTING ON BASE
Small Ball is all about getting on base any way you can. Hits, bases on balls, hit by a pitch and on-base percentages for some key USC players: