By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — Apparently TD Ameritrade Park isn’t where fly balls go to die anymore.
Balls are leaving the cavernous yard so far this College World Series at a rate that hasn’t been seen since the event moved from Rosenblatt Stadium in 2011.
There’s been 22 home runs through 14 games here in Omaha, a seismic uptick from year’s past. Consider that there were 10 in the entirety of last year’s College World Series and only six total between 2013 and 2014 — one fewer than LSU alone has belted in five games.
The Tigers have put on a home run derby compared to previous trips to TD Ameritrade. LSU hit only two in five games during Omaha trips in 2013 and 2015. Mike Papierski has already eclipsed that number himself and became the first player in CWS history to homer from both sides of the plate in one game.
“Not going to lie, I didn’t expect us to hit this many home runs,” said third baseman Josh Smith, who homered Friday. “We haven’t really been a power hitting team all year. For us to come out and do that is pretty cool.”
The return of the long ball was a major topic of conversation Sunday as LSU and Florida held a joint press conference before beginning the College World Series Finals Monday.
“The best part of baseball is hitting home runs,” Florida slugger JJ Schwartz said. “It has a lot to do with the wind. The wind has been howling out this whole week. It’s good for baseball. It’s good for fans. It’s good for momentum swings, things like that.”
“I think the home run is really good for college baseball and for baseball in general,” LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson added. “I mean, I can’t speak to hitting home runs as much as JJ can, I don’t have as much power as he does. It’s not really my game. But I think it’s good.”
The cause, according to those involved, is a myriad of factors. Most notably is the wind that Schwartz alluded to, which has gusted out through most of the tournament.
The flatter-seemed balls introduced in 2015 and players adjusting over time to the BBCOR bats is also believed to play a role.
“I think that’s the biggest difference between this year and previous years, when we’ve been here,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
He continued: “The wind has allowed the park to play fairer, I think. I don’t think cheap home runs are being hit. Balls getting hit good are being helped a little bit. I don’t see any cheap home runs that you can see in other ball parks.”
If the wind continues to howl, the College World Series could be in for a fireworks-filled finale.
HOME SWEET HOME
LSU will be the home team in games one and — if necessary — three.
The Tigers can thank Jamie Tutko for that.
LSU’s video coordinator doubles as an ace coin flip representative, apparently, improving to a perfect 4-0 in such home-team-determining flips by winning twice on Saturday night to ensure LSU would be the only team with a chance to have a Warren Morris-like walk-off it there’s a winner-take-all finale.
First the teams flipped to see who’d be home in game one. Florida, the higher seed, chose tails and it was heads. Florida again called tails when the teams flipped to be home for a potential third game, and it once again came up heads.
So much for the notion that tails never fails, right? Maybe Las Vegas will give Tutko a call once the Super Bowl rolls around next winter to gauge which way the action should roll in ahead of the oft-wagered coin toss.
Baseball and superstitions go together as well as stadium franks and ice-cold beer.
LSU will wear purple throughout the College World Series Finals, Mainieri told reporters Sunday. The Tigers wore purple throughout its three-game run through the loser’s bracket to reach this point and is 14-1 when wearing purple tops this season.
“It was a team decision,” Mainieri said.
Championship Gold has a prominent place in LSU’s Omaha tradition, but this isn’t unheard of. Back in 1997, LSU wore purple throughout its romp to the national title.
Caleb Gilbert’s work at the College World Series might not be done just yet.
The sophomore right-hander fired 7.1 brilliant innings to lead LSU past Oregon State on Saturday. He threw 97 pitches in that outing, but Mainieri said Sunday that he’ll likely be available to pitch in relief some time in the championship series.
Gilbert could appear as early as Tuesday’s game two, the coach said, but it’s more likely he’d be available to serve as a bridge between Alex Lange and closer Zack Hess if a winner-take-all game three Wednesday becomes necessary.
Mainieri said he thought Hess would feel “rejuvenated” after taking Sunday off from throwing entirety. He admitted to feeling “fatigued” Saturday after his third relief stint in four days.
“I’m feeling good,” Hess said. “For sure (the day off helped).”