GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. – Are you ready for some small ball?
A combination of ingredients that college baseball hasn’t tasted in many years could make the Florida-South Carolina final in the College World Series a white-knuckle, low-scoring series.
Runs have been scarce throughout the inaugural CWS at TD Ameritrade Park. In 12 games, not a single team has scored 10 or more runs in a game. That’s something the Gators did 13 times prior to Omaha, including three times in the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina has reached the mark nine times, including once in the NCAA Tournament.
Needless to say, this is not former LSU coach Skip Bertman’s kind of CWS. His teams won four titles from 1990-98 in what is now referred to as the Gorilla Ball Era, a period that included a 21-14 win by Southern Cal over Arizona State in the 1998 championship game that featured a CWS-record eight home runs.
That’s one more home run than has been hit in the entire 2011 CWS. So what has changed? This year’s CWS features a more pitcher-friendly bat, a more pitcher-friendly ballpark, and a more pitcher-friendly game in which pitching and defense are in vogue more than in recent years.
The likelihood that every run will be at a premium was a popular topic at Sunday’s CWS press conference featuring the Gators and Gamecocks.
“You know, the numbers may be down, but I think offensively it’s been an exciting series,’’ Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “There may not have been the home runs, but I think offensively it’s been exciting – the grinding out of the at-bats, the hit-and-runs, the drags, the pushes, the defending the bunt.
“The walk is now a huge part of the offense.’’
Small ball played a huge role in the way both Florida and South Carolina advanced to the championship series. A pair of bunts by Cody Dent and Nolan Fontana sparked a rally in the bottom of the eighth inning of the Gators’ 6-4 win over Vanderbilt.
Meanwhile, South Carolina won a 3-2 thriller in 13 innings against Virginia when catcher Robert Beary laid down a bunt with runners at first and second and one out. Virginia pitcher Cody Winiarski fielded the bunt cleanly, but his throw to third was wild and allowed pinch-runner Adam Matthews to race home in a walk-off win for the Gamecocks.
Both O’Sullivan and South Carolina coach Ray Tanner expect pitching and defense to play more of a factor than the long ball, especially Tanner.
The Gators have out-homered South Carolina 68-45 and a pair of Tucker three-run homers in the postseason – he hit one in Florida’s 8-6 win over Mississippi State in Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional and one in Florida’s 3-1 win over Vanderbilt in their second game here – played critical roles in Florida getting an opportunity to play for a national championship.
South Carolina’s is built more around pitching and defense. The Gamecocks’ team ERA is 2.49 overall, and 1.30 in three games in Omaha.
“We understand who we are as a team,’’ Tanner said. “And when you’ve got Mike [Zunino] and Preston over here that blast a three-run homer and take the other team out, we don’t do that so much.’’
Zunino leads the Gators with 18 home runs, but at the CWS he is just 2-for-12 (.167) with his only two hits both infield singles, including a perfect bunt on Friday against Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray.
The Gators are stepping to the plate and doing whatever it takes to win. If that means small ball, so be it. Zunino’s sacrifice bunt set up Tucker’s game-winning homer against Mississippi State.
Tanner has certainly changed his approach since those days he served as an assistant on Bertman’s staff with Team USA in the mid-1990s. The new bats, better pitching and his team’s skill set have all shaped his revamped philosophy in the dugout.
“Managing the game has changed quite a bit,’’ he said. “The day of the three-run homer is hard. There are some teams that still hit them.’’
In three games at the CWS, the Gamecocks are hitting a series-best .274 as a team but with no home runs. Tucker’s homer against Vanderbilt’s Grayson Garvin is Florida’s only home run. The Gators have hit .265 in three games, second to South Carolina.
The players know that every at-bat will count in what appears on paper an even series. Both teams have 53 wins and need two more to be able to say they are national champions.
“Florida, they’re a little bit similar to us,’’ South Carolina second baseman Scott Wingo said. “They hit-and-run, they bunt, steal. They got great pitching and defense.’’
Tucker has been Florida’s most dangerous offensive threat in the postseason with a NCAA Tournament-high 20 RBI. While he will certainly take another three-run homer, Tucker said he won’t be surprised to see nip-and-tuck games in the best-of-three series that starts Monday night at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
“They just know how to win,’’ Tucker said. “If they find themselves in a tough spot in the ballgame, they know how to get out of it. The make big pitches and get timely hits.’’
In a nutshell, that sounds a lot like small ball.