Festive Air Pervades CWS Media Day

OMAHA—Watch out, Abbott & Costello. There’s a new comedy duo taking the baseball world by storm: Fox & Avent.

The interplay between North Carolina’s Mike Fox and North Carolina State’s Elliott Avent stole the show at the annual College World Series media day, perfectly capturing Friday’s mood: festive and anticipatory, with just a little nervous tension lurking under the surface. After all, these coaches and players do have games to play starting Saturday—and they can’t all be winners.

Fox, whose Tar Heels square off against rival N.C. State for the fourth time this season in Sunday’s first game, set the tone with his opening remarks.

“Could you all have set Elliott and I any closer together?” Fox quipped, with a gesture toward Avent, sitting to his left. “We’re touching knees. By the end of this we might be holding hands, I don’t know.”

A little later, a reporter asked both coaches if it is is a good thing that they are playing each other in their first CWS game.

“I think we kind of like playing each other,” Avent said, while Fox shook his head ‘no,’ with a wry smile. “It’s a great rivalry. It’s intense but, I mean, it’s not hated. It’s not as hated as people think. The games have been so good, and they’ve been clean games, and both teams can really, really play. It’s a huge competition.”

After a beat, Fox deadpanned, “I agree with Elliott.”

“For the first time ever,” Avent said.

“For the first time ever,” Fox agreed. “I mean, yes, it has to be good. It’s good for our league, good for the state of North Carolina. It should be exciting. It’s funny how it all kind of worked out, but it’s no fun playing N.C. State when Carlos Rodon is on the mound.”

When Fox completed his answer, Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri leaned forward to look past down the podium past Fox and Avent at UCLA’s John Savage and quipped, “John, you feel like we’re in a Vaudeville act?”

“Sideshow,” Savage responded.

Certainly, LSU and UCLA won’t be a sideshow on Sunday. Despite all the appeal of North Carolina vs. N.C State—Kent Emanuel vs. Rodon, two rivals facing off on the sport’s biggest stage for the first time—the Tigers and Bruins will play in primetime Sunday. LSU is LSU, after all. Omaha is always flooded with purple-and-gold-clad fans when the Tigers are in town, and it’s no mystery which team the crowd will be pulling for Sunday night.

“They’ve got the best fans in college baseball—I think anybody would say that,” Savage said. “They’ve got the biggest support, one of the most beautiful stadiums in the country. They treat their players very well. It’s great. I think it’s great that LSU is here—it means a lot to college baseball.”

LSU is making its first trip to Omaha since 2009, which means this group of seniors avoided becoming the first LSU seniors to miss out on the College World Series since the class that graduated in 1985. When a member of the LSU media asked Mainieri how it felt to “finally” get back to Omaha, Mainieri chuckled, looked at the other coaches and said, “See what it’s like coaching here? ‘Finally. Finally got here.’ It’s been a whole three years,” Mainieri said. “Hey, that’s what you sign up for at LSU. Nobody pulled the wool over my eyes when I took this job at LSU . . . I think there is a word I could probably use—we were maybe a little relieved to get here.”

You could say N.C. State is relieved to finally make it to Omaha, too. When the Wolfpack clinched their super regional against Rice, the players raced back to their locker room and tore down the signs posted on each locker that read, “1968.”

“Paul, you said you hadn’t been here in three years, right?” Avent said. “Mike, you haven’t been here in two years, and Savage, you haven’t been here since last year. Well, N.C. State hasn’t been here in 45 years, so I don’t know if that makes me more excited to be here than them. I doubt it. But we are very grateful and very happy to be here.”

To reinforce that point, Avent shared a great anecdote about two of his players—Jake Armstrong and Logan Ratledge.

“Last night, I was up in my hotel room looking down, and I saw red shirts,” Avent said. “I looked, and it was two of my players playing a pick-up Wiffle ball game on the lawn with a Little League team from Colorado. They were pretty intense. They played for like an hour. I watched 10 minutes from my room and went down and watched the last five innings, and it’s going to help me, because I discovered one of my hitters is a better lefthanded hitter than he is a righthanded hitter, because he was hitting lefthanded Wiffle ball. So we may make a change now Sunday for that game.”

All joking aside, there was only one significant lineup decision discussed in Friday’s press conferences. Each coach is planning to use his usual No. 1 starter, but Oregon State’s Pat Casey said he was prepared to go with freshman righty Andrew Moore instead of senior lefty Matt Boyd (the staff ace), depending how Boyd feels—and later, Beavers pitching coach Nate Yeskie confirmed that OSU will go with Moore. Boyd started Saturday’s super regional opener against Kansas State and threw 123 pitches over seven innings, then threw another 21 pitches to get the final four outs Monday. Casey made it clear he wasn’t too pleased by the NCAA’s decision to flip the bracket, making the Beavers play Mississippi State on Saturday instead of Sunday. He said an e-mail arrived Monday during his super regional letting him know the bracket was flipped (as the UNC-South Carolina game was pushed until Tuesday).

“There’s no secret that we threw Matt on Monday, threw him an inning and a third,” Casey said. “We were planning on playing Sunday.”

Boyd wasn’t the only ace who made a relief appearance on very short rest over the last two weeks, and the notion of instituting some sort of restrictions on how pitchers can be used in the postseason has become a topic of some debate. When a reporter asked Fox about that issue, he tersely replied, “I would be against that proposal.” When pushed, he said he believes college coaches know what they’re doing and have the best interests of their players at heart. The other coaches echoed that sentiment. So did the sport’s power brokers at the State of College Baseball press conferences—so don’t look for pitch limits anytime soon.

Casey also said that key lefthanded reliever Max Engelbrekt has been steadily progressing after tweaking his back, but it remains unclear if he’ll be available Saturday.

Casey, the grizzled Omaha veteran with a pair of national championship rings locked away in his trophy case, played the straight man during Friday’s media festivities; he was all business. Mississippi State’s John Cohen, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell and Indiana’s Tracy Smith mixed in a few more quips.

All four of those coaches are making their first trips to TD Ameritrade Park, and naturally they had good things to say about it.

“I feel like Gomer Pyle walking around this stadium,” Cohen cracked. “It’s like, ‘Look at this room, they’ve got this!’ The blue room just for hanging out, and then the locker room deal and they’ve got the cage room. I’m from Starkville, Mississippi. This is really cool stuff.”

Casey has more fond memories of Rosenblatt Stadium than most, and he said the new stadium does not detract from Rosenblatt’s memory. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“I think like history, as time continues to lapse, those things get bigger and more important, and I think actually this beautiful stadium will add to the memories of Rosenblatt, because they’ll only become bigger—the fish gets bigger every time,” Casey said. “The things that happened at Rosenblatt that were so special, they’ll never be duplicated anymore. So I think those things will actually become bigger, especially to those guys that played there. And this is a terrific, unbelievable facility.”

Don’t expect Smith’s Hoosiers to be cowed by the venue or the atmosphere—not after what they endured last week in Tallahassee.

“I do think that is probably the toughest place to play,” Smith said of Dick Howser Stadium. “I mean, they have manuals on cheers they do during the games, and they absolutely go crazy. But the good part about that is on our trip to the College World Series, I look at it like, ‘Thank goodness we had that opportunity to roll through there, because we’ll never, never in my lifetime face anything like we faced last weekend . . . They weren’t hostile, crazy, rude—but so loud, you couldn’t talk. You couldn’t talk in the dugout. You couldn’t talk on the mound—anything. We had a six-run lead going into the top of the ninth and even  with that we didn’t feel comfortable.”

But the Hoosiers held on, showing outstanding poise for a program sailing through unchartered waters. Much of the team’s mentality comes from Smith, who revealed some neat insight into his coaching style when a reporter asked the coaches how much they make use of Sabermetric stats.

“Zero,” Smith said. “How do I manage? I manage with my gut. I’ll take statistics, I’ll look at some of that stuff. But I’m a simple human being. And I’ve been blasted on Twitter. I’ve got guys questioning, ‘Coach, why are you bunting first and second with nobody on?’ And they cite all these sources that say that’s the absolute stupidest thing in the world. I’m just a big believer in, I think you’ve got to know your personnel . . . I’m a feel manager. I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of my personnel, and that’s how I make my decisions.”

The reporter followed up by asking all of the coaches if any of them knew their best player’s OPS (none of them did). Smith answered, “What is OPS? No.”

McDonnell has a slightly different approach.

“I’ve got a degree in mathematics,” McDonnell said. “So I like numbers, I like statistics. I talk about the law of averages. There’s a reason the shortstop stands where he stands—there’s no rule that says he has to stand there. But most shortstops stand in a very common place.”

Indiana’s personnel and style also differs significantly from Louisville’s, making the Saturday night matchup between the two clubs plenty intriguing. Louisville’s offense is known most for its speed, but McDonnell emphasized that the Cardinals “do a lot more than steal bases. I like to say we fill up a stat sheet.”

The Hoosiers are known most for its power, but as Smith put it, “It’s not like we tell our kids to drop and drive, throw those old-man softball swings and try to hit balls out of the park. I think our guys have good approaches at the plate. We’ve hit some home runs, but our offense is not centered around the home run.”

Cohen, who coached in a smaller home ballpark at Kentucky prior to taking over Mississippi State, said he thinks it’s a little easier to adjust to a bigger ballpark—like TD Ameritrade—when you play your home games in one.

“And our ballpark plays pretty big,” Cohen said. “We’ve been fortunate; we played in a big ballpark in Hoover (at the SEC tournament), played in a big ballpark when we hosted a regional and went to Charlottesville (for super regionals)—a big ballpark. I think this helps us a little bit.”

Teams that are reliant upon the long ball won’t fare well in Omaha in the current era of BBCOR bats and spacious TD Ameritrade Park. Some coaches still bemoan the lack of power in the game now—like Mainieri did on Friday. Many coaches have expressed support for switching to the livelier, lower-seamed ball used by the minor leagues.

In the most newsworthy development from the State of Baseball press conference, American Baseball Coaches Association executive director Dave Keilitz said the the idea of going to the pro ball is complicated because Rawlings is the only manufacturer that makes a ball with the professional coefficient of restitution, and a number of conferences have contracts with Wilson and Diamond. But he said those manufacturers could more easily switch to lower seams.

“What we’ve got to find out is, what does that mean if we were to do that in terms of the ball off the bat, distance-wise?” Keilitz said. “And that we’re studying this summer.”

Because of the NCAA legislative cycle, no action can be taken until 2014, but it is an issue worth monitoring. In the meantime, everyone associated with college baseball agrees that the game is in better shape than ever before.

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