OMAHA, Neb . — Christian Ibarra stood on the field at TD Ameritrade Park, remembering his frustrations in the College World Series two years ago.
In at-bat after at-bat during LSU’s brief two-game stay in 2013, Ibarra “barreled up” shot after shot, only to watch the balls he thought he put a charge into fizzle and fall short of the green outfield fence like he was caught in some endless, nightmarish loop.
An anti-home run derby.
“After the first one,” LSU’s undergraduate assistant coach admitted, “I yelled something I can’t say.”
During the pre-CWS practice sessions Friday, Ibarra saw something that gave him hope, not only for the Tigers’ chances at victory but for the offense-starved CWS in total.
“I have a feeling there will be a few more” home runs, Ibarra said. “I saw Miami hit right before us, and some of the balls were flying out.”
The story of the 2015 season — other than the adventures of LSU’s stuffed mascot bear, Lil Brown Suga — has been the new, flatter-seamed baseball.
Offense flatlined in college baseball the past two years. Batting averages fell four straight seasons from 2011-14, bottoming out at .270 last season, the worst since the NCAA first allowed aluminum bats in 1974. Home runs per game also fell four straight years, dropping to an anemic 0.39 per game in 2014 — the lowest average since the NCAA began keeping track in 1970.
So the NCAA, the lumbering, often tone-deaf organization it is, to its credit moved to do something about it, adopting a flat-seamed ball designed to fly farther than last year’s model.
The results haven’t been revolutionary, but they have been positive. The Division I-wide batting average improved to .274. Home runs per game improved to 0.55, the highest average since 2010. It’s not the Geauxrilla ball days of the 1990s, but at least college baseball again has more pizzazz than lawn bowling.
The question now: Will the CWS, one of the NCAA’s precious handful of marquee championships, get the shot of adrenaline that the regular season did?
Like Ibarra, LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro saw some encouraging signs in batting practice.
“Judging from batting practice, the ball definitely jumps from left-center and right-center to the foul poles,” he said.
But there remain two major factors working against the prospect of the eight teams here going all home run derby in this year’s CWS.
One is the ballpark. TD Ameritrade has the same outfield specifications as the late, great Rosenblatt Stadium — 408 to center field, 375 to the power alleys, 335 to the foul poles — but differs in two important respects. Rosenblatt was oriented toward the northeast, taking advantage of the prevailing summer winds, much like Alex Box Stadium. TD Ameritrade’s home plate points toward the southeast, often into the wind. And Rosenblatt sat up on a hill, exposed to the wind. The new field is hunkered down roughly on the same elevation as the nearby Missouri River.
The second factor is pitching. It takes great pitching to get here, and offense has to buy a ticket. Stanford was the top home run-hitting team in Division I with 85. The Cardinal didn’t even make the NCAA tournament, much less the CWS.
“No question the ball is more lively,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We hit many more balls out today than we did two years ago. But the big factor is the quality of the pitching.”
“Not a lot you can do when guys are throwing 95 to 100 mph with 88-mph breaking balls,” said TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle, whose team takes on LSU at 2 p.m. Sunday. “We’ll see, but I would anticipate (more home runs).”
How many more is the question. There were only three homers here in 2013 and 2014 in 30 games — 0.20 per game.
Five homers would be more, but when you’re starting from nearly zero, a couple more isn’t a whole lot.
At least the NCAA, officially, is on board with more shots over the wall and more offense in general.
“I think we all noticed (last year) towards the end of the series, outfielders were basically playing deep infield,” said Damani Leech, the NCAA’s manager of championships and alliances who heads up baseball. “So the home run is another thing we hope to see back in the game this year. So the threat of the home run has outfielders playing a little farther out, which is going to open up offense. You may not see as many home runs (as in years past), but you may see singles and doubles in critical situations that are still moving people around the bases.”
At least, as Cannizaro said, it’s something.
“We want to be able to play in a park that, when you hit it, it goes,” he said. “We’re not looking for a launching pad.”
Perhaps just a level playing field, one that’s not tilted heavily toward the mound.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.