UNC, LSU thrive in college baseball's new era
It's been three years since college baseball zapped the power from its metal bats, causing the once ubiquitous slugfests to largely disappear.
Nobody has adjusted better than North Carolina and LSU.
Home runs are down more than 50 percent and scoring has plummeted since the NCAA put strict new guidelines on the sport's bats, causing them to behave much more like their wood counterparts at the professional level.
So teams have had to find other ways to win.
"There's a secret — it's called balance and versatility," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "The days of swinging for the fences and mashing 100-plus homers in a season are over. It helps to have a few guys who can hit the ball out of the park, but you've got to have guys who can handle the bat and run. You've got to have righties and lefties."
"And of course, you've got to pitch and play defense."
North Carolina (39-3) and LSU (37-4) are the class of college baseball so far this season. The Tar Heels just finished a 14-game winning streak and the Tigers are off to their best start in the program's storied history — which includes six national titles.
The programs with the gaudy win-loss totals are among a handful of top contenders for the national title. The last time a college baseball national champion finished with less than 10 losses was in 1995, when Cal State Fullerton won the title with a 57-9 record.
North Carolina coach Mike Fox — who is in his 15th season — has the program off to an 18-2 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Tar Heels ripped off a 14-game winning streak before a 9-8 loss to UNC Wilmington on Tuesday.
"We're playing some good baseball these days and I'd like to keep it that way," Fox said.
Both LSU and North Carolina have balanced rosters that include loads of pitching and defense and just enough power in the lineup to blast a few big hits that can put games out of reach.
"We probably don't have the best offense in the country or the best pitching," Mainieri said. "But we do play some great defense and when you put everything together, we've got something special."
LSU's been dominant in arguably the most difficult league in college baseball — the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers have a 15-3 league record and are one of six SEC teams ranked in Baseball America's top 25.
The hot SEC start is even more impressive considering they've played 12 of their 18 games on the road.
It's a team with basically no weaknesses. Aaron Nola (7-0, 2.15 ERA) and Ryan Eades (7-1, 2.56) headline the rotation while closer Chris Cotton has eight saves and is one of five regularly-used relievers with an ERA under 2.00.
Mason Katz is hitting .397 with 13 homers and 60 RBIs while freshman Alex Bregman is batting .414 and five homers and adding terrific defense at shortstop.
"When you have so many good hitters in the lineup, you've got to pitch to somebody," Katz said. "There are so many guys getting on base, that when you do hit a homer, you know it's probably going to drive in a few guys, too."
North Carolina has won nine straight games in the ACC, but will be challenged over the next three weeks with games against fellow conference powers North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and Virginia.
The Tar Heels like their chances with a pitching staff that includes Kent Emanuel (8-1, 1.82) and Trent Thornton (8-1, 0.88) and an experienced offense that's hitting a combined .317 and is among the ACC's leaders in almost every category.
"I think our team has got a little bit of everything - talent and personality," Emanuel said. "It's a group that finds a way to win the tough games. The difference has really been our offensive production. It's so consistent it takes a lot of pressure off the pitchers."
Neither LSU or UNC is getting too excited about their impressive records.
Mainieri pointed out that his Tigers started out 32-6 in 2010, but a cold streak in May nearly kept the program out of the NCAA tournament.
"The difference between a great team and an average team isn't as big as most people think," Mainieri said. "We're flattered with all the attention so far this season, but they don't hand out any trophies in April."