Scott Rabalais: Welcome to Hoover, where the big fly goes to die

Advocate file photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU third baseman Christian Ibarra scores during LSU's 5-4 victory against Vanderbilt in last year's SEC Championship game at Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala. Show caption
Advocate file photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU third baseman Christian Ibarra scores during LSU's 5-4 victory against Vanderbilt in last year's SEC Championship game at Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala.

In a college baseball season where home runs have gone to die, Hoover Metropolitan Stadium is their vast graveyard.

Its immense outfield isn’t so much reminiscent of TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, Nebraska, home of the College World Series, but more like the state of Nebraska itself. Instead of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, they should call it Hoover Metropolitan Airport.

It’s always been a hard place to hit home runs. Given the current baseball in the college game, which has roughly the same aerodynamic characteristics as a round brick, hitting homers is more of a happy, lottery-winning accident. And going to the plate hoping to use home runs to generate your offense is a fool’s errand.

If you miss runs being scored in bunches in college baseball, there may be hope on the horizon in 2015 with a new flat-seamed ball similar to the one used in the minors.

For now, offense will have to be generated more with guile than by anything resembling Geauxrilla Ball. Cunning over crushing. Nip-and-tuck instead of smash-and-bash.

The LSU Tigers have warmed to that task. Yes, they won the Southeastern Conference tournament here last year under similar offensively challenged circumstances, but when the Tigers went to the CWS, their hopes of winning the title were DOA. Warning track power didn’t pack enough volts to keep LSU from packing for home after being two-and-through in Omaha.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri is certainly no fan of the current state of college baseball offense. But he is a big fan of winning. And he has grudgingly accepted that bunting and base stealing are the way to go if you want to go far this postseason.

“I think we’ve done a lot more this year to manufacture runs,” Mainieri said. “We’ve sacrificed more than ever before. For about a month, the hit-and-run was a big play for us. We’ve stolen some bases. I don’t see why we can’t play as well in a big ballpark as anywhere else.”

The numbers support Mainieri’s assertion.

In 68 games last season, LSU had 36 sacrifice flies and 42 sacrifice hits (bunts), an average of .529 and .618 per game, respectively.

In 55 games so far this season, the Tigers have 29 sacrifice flies (.527 per game, a hair behind last year’s pace) but have 49 sacrifice hits (.890 per game, or nearly one per outing).

Home runs, not surprisingly, are way off. LSU had 47 last season (.617 per game) but has 32 so far in 2014 (.581 per game). That’s not a number likely to get healthier at the Hoover Met, where the big yard and stalled ball conspire to suck in fly balls like the Hoover Vac.

“If you go there and beat yourself up — you could hammer a ball and the center fielder can run it down,” LSU hitting coach Javi Sanchez said. “(Center fielder Andrew) Stevenson did that last year against Vanderbilt.”

So the emphasis for Javi’s hitters has been on driving the ball. Rolling it past the infielders with sharp grounders. Finding the ample gaps between the oufielders who can’t possibly cover all the acreage up here if the ball gets down quickly enough.

“I think that’s going to be a key point of emphasis for our guys,” Sanchez said.

“Once a couple of our guys have success seeing how big the outfield is by one-hopping or two-hopping the outfielders I think we run with that.”

The start of Wednesday’s LSU-Vanderbilt game — a rematch of last year’s thrilling 5-4, 11-inning victory by the Tigers in the tournament final — could prove crucial. Both teams will be looking to catch the other napping at the unbaseball-like hour of 9:30 a.m. An early lead, even 1-0 or 2-1, could create possibilities later.

“If you go back and analyze some of our key victories we’ve been able to scratch across a couple of runs early to open up the offense,” Sanchez said. “That allows coach (Mainieri) to do a hit and run, steal a base, play for a run early and try to bust it open late.

“These days when you fall behind early by three or four runs you don’t want to make outs on the bases, so you can’t really hit and run; you’re not going to bunt for a run when you’re down three or four.”

LSU has won four of its last five SEC tournament appearances under Mainieri dating back to 2008 (the Tigers didn’t make it in 2011), hitting it long in 2009 with a team that went on to claim the program’s sixth NCAA championship.

It’s the way Mainieri would prefer to play it. But he prefers to win most of all, and this year this is how the game is best played.

“It’s just good, solid baseball that we need to play,” he said, “and I think we will.”

Given his track record, LSU’s strong offensive roll last week (56 runs and 61 hits in four games) and the Tigers’ mental approach, it might be unwise to bet on their tournament-winning dreams coming here to die again this year.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.