Softball’s dilemma: How many homers are too many?
OKLAHOMA CITY – Drive after towering drive, the Women’s College World Series put on a show like it never had done before.
Arizona’s Stacie Chambers hit a mammoth shot that caromed off an elevated camera some 250 feet from home plate. Lini Koria powered one into the top row of the left-field bleachers. UCLA’s sluggers put up even bigger numbers, with their own series of blasts that even the deeper and taller outfield walls had no hope of containing.
The sport where 1-0 games were once commonplace has turned into something closer to a home run derby, and it was never more evident than in Game 2 of the World Series finals.
UCLA beat Arizona in a 15-9 slugfest Tuesday night to claim its 11th NCAA softball title, with the teams combining for a record seven home runs – more than were hit in a weeklong span at 10 of the first 28 World Series.
Supplying the power for all those home runs are a line of composite-barreled bats, replacing the old aluminum ones, to create a new offensive era in the sport.
Now, college softball’s rule-makers are trying to decide whether that era should continue.
“This is a big issue,” South Florida coach Ken Eriksen, the chair of the NCAA’s rules committee, said Wednesday. “I really think we’re at a crossroads.”
Rules committee members spent the day after the World Series ended going through statistics about the new bats that entered the game just a few years ago.
First and foremost, they’re concerned with whether the new, stronger bats create a safety issue for pitchers who are only about 40 feet from the batter and corner infielders who aren’t much farther back.
Beyond that, the committee members are involved in a debate over whether softball is supposed to be a low-scoring game or if that’s just how it started out.
“There’s some people that will go watch 10 games that are all 1-0 and think that that was great. And then there are just as many people who will say, ‘I’m not going back,”‘ said Dee Abrahamson, the NCAA’s secretary rules editor for softball.
“It’s really hard to figure out the balance.”
Back when the World Series first became an NCAA event in 1982, 10 of the 14 games were shutouts and six finished with a 1-0 score. Over time, the game has evolved with changes to the distance between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, the design and color of the ball and the material from which bats are made.
This year, there were 9.4 runs scored per game with 35 home runs in 15 games – the second straight year a record was set.
“I don’t know if you could say home runs sell tickets, but I would say it was pretty entertaining the past two nights,” said Megan Langenfeld, who was the unanimous pick as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after she and UCLA teammate Andrea Harrison each hit a World Series-record four home runs.
The past four years have produced the most runs per game in Division I history, and there are about twice as many home runs as there were a decade ago.
At least at its premiere event, the following for the sport is growing. Each game is now televised on one of ESPN’s networks, and records were broken this year for total attendance at the event and for an individual session – with 9,080 turning out for Saturday night’s games.
“It just depends on what the game wants,” said Arizona coach Mike Candrea, who also previously coached the U.S. to gold and silver medals in the Olympics. “I think the right people are on it right now and are trying to get a grip on the game.
“I love the home run. I just don’t think that the home run should be hit by everyone in the lineup, and there’s a lot of home runs being hit.”
Hawaii, which made it to the World Series for the first time this season, blew away Arizona’s year-old mark with 158 home runs. Eight Rainbow Wahine players reached double-digits in homers, led by 5-foot-3 freshman Kelly Majam with 30.
“A real comparative issue is baseball, because people follow baseball in America really, really well,” Eriksen said. “In a 162-game season, a big home run year is between 45 and 50 home runs. … You had a couple young ladies with 25 to 30 home runs this year. That would turn into an 80 to 90 or 95 home run season in baseball. So, is that what we want?”
College baseball decided to put a moratorium on the composite-barreled bats this season, and the softball committee is waiting for data to see what impact it had. The NCAA has also been compiling statistics from tests of the new bats in recent years, along with data on the number of injuries from batted balls.
Next year, the bat testing will transition from voluntary to mandatory at certain regular-season tournament and at all NCAA tournament sites, including the World Series.
There are other ideas on the table, too.
Ehren Earleywine, who coached Missouri to its first consecutive World Series appearances the past two years, suggested it might be easier to loosen up restrictions on pitchers than to require schools to spend money on new bats, balls or stadium changes.
“Until they get rid of the composite bats, you’re going to keep seeing a lot of bombs. There’s no doubt about it,” Earleywine said. “But if you allow the pitchers to get some air under their feet and not worry so much about staying in lanes and stuff like that, I think it would even the score out a little bit.”
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