As the Division I college baseball season begins around the nation this weekend, players will be facing an uncertainty each time they step into the batter’s box.
The trusted bat they may have used last year, and possibly for years before, is unavailable, as the NCAA has changed how it rates bats.
It’s a complicated process with different acronyms, but the stated goal was to make the new non-wood variety react more like their wood cousins.
It seems to be working to some degree.
“They are not like wood, they are better than that. I don’t think it’s as bad as everyone said it would be in terms of being dead, but it’s definitely different, no doubt about it,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf, whose team begins the 2011 season Friday at Fresno State in a three-team weekend featuring the host Bulldogs and Oregon State.
“It’s going to change how you manage the game,” Machtolf said. “You’re going to play it shorter, you’re going to play for one run a little bit more, especially if you trust your bullpen.”
But Machtolf and Washington State coach Donnie Marbut, whose Cougars travel to Cal State Bakersfield for three games this weekend, don’t know exactly how the new bats will affect games.
Whitworth College coach Dan Ramsey found out last weekend, when the Division III Pirates traveled to Longview, Texas, and split four games with LeTourneau University.
The Pirates, who hit 26 home runs last year in a 13-27 season, didn’t hit a long ball all weekend and allowed just one.
Although Machtolf believes limiting the long ball will force him to change how he manages games, Marbut doesn’t anticipate a new-look for the Cougars.
“It won’t change a thing how we manage the game, because we’re not a team, if you look at the numbers, that’s leading the country in home runs every year,” he said. “I can see some guys doing some smaller things, because it’s a fact of life. The balls aren’t traveling as far.”
Why should WSU change? Playing Marbut’s typical small-ball style last season, the Cougars were 37-22, made the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season and advanced to the regional championship game.
And, with seven players back who played in at least 40 games and a set starting rotation – as soon as ace right-hander Chad Arnold returns next month from an elbow problem – to rely on, it’s no wonder Marbut feels the Cougars will be just fine in the typically daunting Pac-10.
“It looks like, after seven years in the Pac-10, it’s the toughest year ever,” said Marbut of a conference that sent eight of its 10 members to the postseason last season. “Every team has lots and lots of guys coming back.”
The Cougars do as well, but they will start the season not only without Arnold, last year’s Friday starter who was 5-3 with a 3.74 ERA, but without senior catcher Jay Ponciano, who will not travel to Bakersfield after being banged up in a scrimmage collision last Sunday.
Machtolf’s Gonzaga team will play a schedule rated third toughest by Baseball America magazine. It also doesn’t feature a home game until UC Irvine comes to Spokane the last week of March.
It will all be new to many of the Zags, a lot of whom were not part of last year’s 20-36 team.
“To be honest with you, we’ve got a lot of new faces,” Machtolf said. “I think we have the talent, but there is going to be an adjustment period to Division I pitching.”
The newcomer that excites Machtolf the most is freshman Marco Gonzales, from Fort Collins, Colo. The 6-foot-1 lefty, a three-time all-state selection, is in the starting rotation and will play some first base for the Zags.
“He’s probably the most heralded,” of the new players, Machtolf said.
The Gonzaga pitching staff starts with junior left-hander Ryan Carpenter (4-4, 5.67 ERA) and closes with senior Cody Martin (5-7, 6.55), who returns to the bullpen after starting last season.
Two U-High products, left-handers Billy Moon and Tyler Olson, will also see a lot of action, with Olson the No. 3 starter right now.
Whitworth’s Division III season is already underway and the Pirates will jump into Northwest Conference play this weekend at the Puget Sound Loggers.