There was nothing spectacular about the bottom of the first inning of Tuesday's College World Series Finals Game 2. In fact, for an inning that saw UCLA take a lead it would not surrender en route to its title-clinching win over Mississippi State, it was downright dull.
Outfielder Brian Carroll stepped into the box to lead off for the Bruins, earning a free trot to first after getting beaned in the knee (though replay showed he stepped out of the batters' box to do so). He moved to third after a sac bunt attempt from the two-hole hitter was thrown away by the Mississippi State defense, and Eric Filia brought him in to score with a sac liner to deep right field. Just like that, UCLA had a 1-0 lead without a single hit.
UCLA's approach to the game may be boring, but it's simple and effective: use commanding pitching and defense to shut down your opponent, then scrape together whatever runs you can in whatever way you can get them. In an age where deadened bats and a pitcher-friendly park in Omaha have led to record lows in the game's offensive production, and where well-executed sacrifice bunts are more important than towering home runs, UCLA's formula for success may be the future of college baseball.
If Gregg Popovich coached a college baseball team, it would be the UCLA Bruins. The newly-minted national champions are baseball's version of the Spurs: mundane in their monotonous-yet-unstoppable efficiency. They would go on to score seven more runs in Game 2 -- an offensive explosion by their standards -- but in as humdrum a fashion as possible, using a few handfuls of walks, hit-by-pitches, sac plays and singles to set up their scoring innings. No homers, only two extra-base hits.
What Bruins head coach John Savage and his team were able to accomplish in 2013 with so little offense is truly remarkable. To find where UCLA's .250 team batting average ranks nationally, you have to click through to page six of six on the NCAA database to find them in the No. 259 spot. Think about this for a second: the top team in the country hit in the bottom 15 percent of Division I clubs.
It's not as if they just caught fire in the tournament, either. In fact, UCLA was worse at the plate in Omaha, batting just .227. They slugged only .193 and scored just 19 runs in their five CWS games, both all-time lows for a championship team in the metal bat era. They also became the first club since 1966 to win the title without knocking a single home run in Omaha.
Yet UCLA went a perfect 10-0 through the tournament, using plate discipline, sac plays and smart baserunning to manufacture runs in the absence of power hitting. Perhaps nothing illustrates their unique brand of small ball better than this stat from the NCAA:
UCLA has 12 sac bunts in the 2013 #CWS, which is tied for the most ever with Santa Clara in 1962.— NCAA CWS (@NCAACWS) June 26, 2013
In total, UCLA laid down five bunts in Game 2, and sacrificed in all three situations in which they put the leadoff man on base.
When the team did swing away, it wasn't for power. Of the 65 hits they recorded in the tournament, only ten went for extra bases. Without big hitters with the ability to consistently pull pitches with authority, UCLA batters showed patience and discipline at the plate, staying back on balls in order to drive them through the middle.
In reality, the offensive approach is really more about forcing the opponent into mistakes than it is about actively scoring runs. A steady diet of bunts and singles puts pressure on the defense with the idea that if that pressure is applied long enough, eventually the defense will crack. In the championship series, Mississippi State committed four errors and granted free passes to nine batters.
On the flip side, UCLA's defense was solid all season, finishing with a fielding percentage of .980 in support of one of the best pitching staffs in the nation.
That staff held opponents to only four runs in their four CWS games, good for a 0.80 ERA. They were led by junior starters Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig, both of whom finished with double-digit wins and low-2.00 ERAs on the year. The duo was even better in Omaha, combining to allow just 17 hits and three runs in their four starts. Plutko was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after going 3-0, including wins over LSU and Mississippi State.
Sophomore closer David Berg, the country's best stopper, appeared in every one of the Bruins' ten tournament games, tying an NCAA record Tuesday night with his 51st appearance of the season and breaking the saves record with his 24th on Monday.
The importance of pitching over hitting in today's college game is underscored by the makeup of this year's Omaha field: of the eight teams to reach the CWS, seven of them ranked in the top 15 nationally in team ERA. Of those same eight, only LSU held a spot in the top 15 of team batting average.
UCLA's reliance on small ball and defense reflects a larger paradigm shift within college baseball strategy, one prompted by bat specification changes made in 2011. In that year, the NCAA, concerned with increasing injury risks to pitchers posed by comebackers, instituted new standards meant to deaden bats. The new method for measuring bat performance is known as BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution), which, without digging into too much of the science behind it, essentially decreases the trampoline effect of a bat and decreases the speed of the ball as it leaves the barrel.
Less pop off the bat means shorter distances traveled by the ball, which means less scoring. According to NCAA statistics, in the year prior to the implementation of BBCOR, teams across college baseball averaged 6.98 runs and .94 homers per game. The most up-to-date numbers for the 2013 season show a drop to 5.25 runs and .37 homers per game.
Compounding the offensive decrease in Omaha, particularly, is the venue change from old Rosenblatt Stadium to the new TD Ameritrade Park, which also occurred in 2011. Though the outfield dimensions of the two fields are identical, the positioning of the new stadium poses new difficulties for hitters. Whereas batters in Rosenblatt faced northeast, with the prevailing south wind to their back, TD Ameritrade faces southeast, headlong into the gusts.
In combination with the new bats, the stadium change has led to a drastic drop in long ball production. During each of Rosenblatt's final ten years, an average of 33 home runs left the yard during the CWS. In the two years following the changes, that number dropped to nine and ten, respectively.
Going yard in the 2013 CWS was even more difficult -- in 14 games, only three home runs were hit. Again and again, the country's top sluggers launched perfectly struck pitches deep towards the fences -- often celebrating with a confident bat flip or fist pump -- only to have the wind knock them down on the warning track for long outs.
Oregon State's Danny Hayes hit a pitch on the screws in the bottom of the ninth inning in their opening game against Mississippi State for what would have been a walk-off three-run shot in almost any park in the country. Instead, it died three steps onto the warning track for the final out of the game.
After Hayes flips his bat in celebration, you can see the Mississippi State fielder adjusting back to the ball as it's pushed down by the wind.
UCLA used TD Ameritrade's environment to perfection, frequently pounding fastballs high in the zone and daring hitters to take them out of the park. Pitches that would be long mistakes in most places were thrown purposefully, knowing the wind would hang up any shots hit high and deep.
Despite concerns to the contrary, lack of offense does not seem to be having an effect on the game's popularity. The 2013 CWS set all-time records in single game, average game and total attendance, while the tournament as a whole received unprecedented TV coverage.
Nevertheless, controversy over the game's perceived lack of excitement has led to speculation as to how the issue can be resolved. While it seems the bats are here to stay, critics have suggested both moving in the fences of TD Ameritrade and changing to a ball more similar to the one used in the MLB -- one that produces less drag and can result in longer distances. The ball idea seems to be the easiest and most cost-efficient, and is catching traction among the college baseball community.
None of this, however, is meant to take away from UCLA's historic championship run or their flawless defensive execution down the stretch. A 0.80 ERA is a damn good number, no matter what ballpark you're throwing in. Credit Savage and his staff for recognizing the patterns, and tailoring their team to fit them. The Bruins and their underwhelming offense were scoffed at as a statistical outlier with little chance at the title entering the CWS, but the fact is, when the teams took the field in Omaha, no club was built better for the situation.
Power hitting certainly still has an important place in the game -- sluggers like LSU's Alex Bregman, Mississippi State's Hunter Renfroe and North Carolina's Colin Moran will always remain hot commodities -- but as the Bruins have shown, that place is well below fundamental execution and defense.
Until significant changes are built into college baseball, get used to watching a lot more of Tuesday's first inning.