DeKALB | Baseball has always been a defensive game to NIU head coach Ed Mathey, but this is the first year in Mathey’s coaching career that college baseball has reflected that belief.
Prior to the 2011 season, the NCAA introduced new bats designed to perform like wood. The bats were supposed to cut down on home runs and, in effect, lower the scores of games nationally. In turn, most people believed there would be an uptick in the amount of bunts, hit-and-runs, and double steals.
Nearly halfway through the regular season, all of the above predictions have come to fruition, according to Mathey. There haven’t been nearly as many high scoring games that had characterized college baseball since metal bats were first introduced in the 1970’s.
NIU has hit just nine home runs through 24 games. That said, the Huskies don’t seem to mind that they’re off-pace to reach the 29 home runs they hit in 2010.
“I really don’t have a negative view of the bats, because I’m not a home run hitter,” said NIU third baseman Troy White. “I’m pretty content with doubles and triples.”
Joe Etcheverry hit his first home run of 2011 against Aurora University on Wednesday, but the Huskies’ cleanup hitter believes that first shot may have come sooner with the old bats.
“The beginning of the year in Arizona, I popped a ball up that made it to the warning track, but I was like, ‘man, last year that might be a home run, or at least a double,’” Etcheverry said.
With games that are more dependent on defense and fundamental hitting rather than sheer power, smaller schools are able to stay in games longer. Division III Aurora beat NIU 7-6. The Spartans tied the game with a four-run rally in the top of the eighth. Those four runs wouldn’t have mattered, though, had the balls hit to the warning track by the Huskies earlier in the game gone out.
“They got a walk in the eighth inning, an 0-2 pitch that was over the plate, and is hit pretty hard, and guys on the other side are feeling pretty good and guys on this side are reeling,” Mathey said.
The Huskies nearly pulled off a huge upset of their own against Arizona State in the Coca-Cola Classic in Surprise, Ariz. The Sun Devils edged NIU 10-9, but it was clear that something was different considering that in 2010, ASU outscored NIU 44-6 in a three-game series.
“It’s about execution; it’s not just about talent anymore,” Mathey said. “When you do have lower scoring games, guys feel like they are in it more, they feel they have a chance.”