A decade of unchecked offense that threatened to make a mockery of college baseball reached its zenith June 6, 1998, when Southern California defeated Arizona State 21-14 in the championship game of the College World Series.
The teams set a record for runs scored while combining to hit nine home runs. LSU hit eight in one game during the swatfest in Omaha, Neb., that produced a record 62 blasts over the walls of Rosenblatt Stadium and set CWS benchmarks for batting average, runs and hits.
When the 2005 CWS begins Friday, it is unlikely the eight schools battling for this year’s crown will come within 40 homers of that mark. Since 1998, restrictions on the dimensions of the aluminum bat, a shift away from the long-ball philosophy of the 1990s and a more sophisticated approach to building a pitching staff have joined to put home runs on a downward dive during the regular season and especially at the CWS.
While baseball’s best teams are relying less on the home run, the most recent winners have dismissed them almost entirely from their championship arsenal. USC slammed 17 homers in its six-game run to the 1998 title, but Cal State Fullerton won last year’s tournament hitting one in the same span. Rice hit two in six games while taking the 2003 championship. Texas had five in four games in 2002.
“Our game has shifted to where you’re seeing less and less of those pure power hitters at our level, and top teams are winning with pitching, defense and manufacturing runs,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. “In my mind, this direction is going to continue and that’s good baseball.”
What the college game offered in 1998 was decidedly not good baseball. Aluminum bats, which had replaced wood in the college game in 1974, were so potent they made Babe Ruths out of banjo hitters.
Division I set regular-season records for batting average (.306), runs per game (14.2) and homers per game (2.1). Pitchers were touched for the highest earned-run average in NCAA history (6.12).
“The bats were performing at a level that was changing the game, and there was real concern for its integrity,” NCAA director of championships Dennis Poppe said. “Home runs had really jumped since the early 1990s, and ‘Gorilla ball’ became a trend.”
In response to the 1998 season and CWS, the NCAA worked with leading manufacturers to restrict the bats.
The barrel was reduced by 3/8th inch and the “three and three” rule was instituted where the difference between the length and weight of a bat could not exceed three. (For example, a 34-inch bat had to weigh at least 31 ounces.)
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