HANSEN

Greg Hansen: 'Ping!' a thing of the past; so are slugfests

2012-04-16T00:00:00Z 2012-04-16T07:02:18Z Greg Hansen: 'Ping!' a thing of the past; so are slugfestsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 16, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Sunday baseball in the Pac-12 used to be wind-blowing-out whiffle ball: four-hour, fan-unfriendly games, baseball on steroids.

Pitching staffs were depleted by the third game of a series, and aluminum bats, with a sweet spot as wide as home plate, made a mockery of the game.

In Andy Lopez's first season at Arizona, 2002, the Wildcats played Sunday conference games of 18-14, 15-13 and 15-12. The culture was such that in 1998 the UA played 16 games in which 20 or more runs were scored.

Lopez has been conditioned to the "Ping! factor" for so long that during Sunday's series finale against UCLA he jumped to his feet when shortstop Alex Mejia hit what initially looked like a three-run homer in the third inning.

"Off the bat, my thought was, 'All right, we're back in it,' " Lopez said after UCLA beat the Wildcats 6-2 at Hi Corbett Field.

Instead, the ball died about 15 feet shy of the 388-foot sign in left-center.

An inning later, UA designated-hitter Bobby Brown smacked what looked to be a massive home run to right-center. Instead, with a runner on first, it settled into right-fielder Jeff Gelalich's glove about 10 feet shy of the 405-foot sign.

Two years ago, those fly-ball outs would've been home runs, five runs altogether, and the Wildcats might've left the ballpark in sole possession of first place instead of sharing the Pac-12 lead with UCLA and Oregon.

"You can't let that get in your head," said Mejia, an all-conference shortstop. "We all know about the new bats."

Beginning in 2011, college baseball changed the composition of bats. Aluminum was outlawed; a ball-deadening, wood-composite bat is now mandated. The effect has been immediate and overwhelming.

Sunday, for example, the Pac-12's final conference scores were a modest 6-2, 4-2, 5-3, 6-0 and 8-1. That's an average of 7.4 runs per game. Two years ago that average was closer to 17.4.

Is the pitching better? No. Are the hitters worse? No.

It's all about the dead-bat era.

Nobody hit a home run in the UCLA-Arizona series, which means the home run total in 25 games at Hi Corbett Field this year remains stuck at seven. Yes, seven! Lopez estimates that 20 home runs have been lost: 10 because of the bats, and another 10 because the switch from homer-friendly Kindall/Sancet Stadium to spacious Hi Corbett Field has made the power alleys virtually unreachable.

Here's some perspective: In 1993, powered by a combined 60 home runs by George Arias, Jason Thompson and Todd Landry, Arizona finished the season with 115 homers.

Last year, the first in the modified-bat era, Arizona hit 29 homers.

This year the Wildcats are at eight. Mejia is the leader with three.

Home runs have always been sexy, fan-appealing, seat-filling, game-winning magnets, but, ironically, Arizona is doing all of those things with warning-track power.

With Sunday's crowd of 2,858, Arizona has drawn 57,889 fans to Hi Corbett this season, dwarfing last year's final total of 36,412. The current average of 2,315 would be a school record, and that figure is almost certain to improve: Home series with powerful Oregon and rival Arizona State await. It's possible that the UA could draw 30,000 for those six May games.

UA director of athletics Greg Byrne, mastermind of the move from Kindall/Sancet to Hi Corbett, sat in the press box Sunday and admitted he is pleased with fan support and, perhaps, a bit surprised.

But as for moving in the fences next season, giving the Wildcats (and their fans) a chance to see more runs scored and more home runs hit, he demurred.

"Andy and I will have to make that decision together," he said. "We're doing pretty good with the way things are right now."

A year ago, Arizona pitchers yielded 241 runs, the lowest total since 1978. It was a remarkable statistic given that the Wildcats weren't a juggernaut; they finished 15-12 in the conference. As recently as 2000, Arizona pitchers gave up 490 runs in a season.

What it means is that Lopez, a career pitching coach, is working from his strength.

This Arizona team doesn't have an Arias-type power hitter, anyway. The five players who begin the lineup - Joey Rickard, Johnny Field, Mejia, Robert Refsnyder and Seth Mejias-Brean - are put-the-ball-in-play, take-an-extra-base hitters.

When the Wildcats begin the second half of the Pac-12 schedule Friday at Washington, their best chance to win the league championship rests not with the long ball, but with small ball.

You can't say they aren't prepared.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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