At College World Series, go small or go home

Associated Press photo by NATI HAMIKGroundskeepers groom the field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.before the College World Series. Show caption
Associated Press photo by NATI HAMIKGroundskeepers groom the field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.before the College World Series.

OMAHA, Neb. — If the LSU Tigers have a chance to capture their seventh College World Series this year and need a last at-bat hit to win it, chances are it will be a sharp RBI ground ball single like the one Brad Cresse hit in 2000.

A repeat of Warren Morris’ epic home run to win the title in 1996? Don’t count on it.

Rosenblatt Stadium, the home of the College World Series for decades, was a more hitter-friendly place than the CWS’ new digs, three-year-old TD Ameritrade Ballpark Omaha.

As a result, LSU coach Paul Mainieri is continuing to preach the season-long sermon to his hitters that they need to try to drive the ball for hits rather than try to lift it.

In other words, don’t expect to see Geauxrilla Ball make a comeback in LSU’s first trip to Omaha since winning the 2009 CWS title at Rosenblatt. Not in this spacious new ballpark.

“That’s where fly balls go to die,” Mainieri said.

Even though they have the same dimensions — 335 feet down the foul lines, 375 feet in the power alleys and 408 feet to straightaway center — the ball doesn’t fly out of TD Ameritrade the way it did Rosenblatt.

Blame the new bats, which have put the squeeze on offense across the nation, and geography. The new ballpark sits lower on Missouri River bottomland than did the old one, former LSU coach Skip Bertman explained.

“The wind doesn’t blow there down by the river,” said Bertman, who has attended the CWS at TD Ameritrade. “Rosenblatt sat up on a hill, where a ball could ride the wind. (TD Ameritrade) is like a still night in Baton Rouge.”

Or, perhaps, an average day at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, the ranch-like home of the Southeastern Conference tournament.

“I’ve talked to several people who have coached in that stadium and figured out some of the little nuances,” said Mainieri, whose team opens CWS play Sunday against UCLA (7 p.m., ESPN2). “I’d say it’s a lot like Hoover because it’s very spacious and hard to hit home runs.”

If Omaha’s new jewel of a ballpark is where fly balls go to die, then center field is the lowest point in Death Valley.

How hard is it to hit it out straight away? According to the Omaha World-Herald, there have been 454 hits in 29 CWS games at the new ballpark the past two years. Of those, 19 have been home runs. And none has cleared the center-field fence.

But there will be fly balls hit in front of that fence, so there will be a premium on tracking them down.

“I’ve heard it plays big, so defense will be a big factor,” LSU center fielder Andrew Stevenson said.

Pitching, too. The Tigers’ 2.41 team ERA is second-best in the CWS field behind only Oregon State’s 2.27.

“Obviously our whole goal is to pitch down in the strike zone anyway,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “If you pitch down, good things happen.”

The Tigers will step onto the field at the ballpark for the first time at 3 p.m. Friday for their designated one-hour practice session. After a public service opportunity, Mainieri said he plans to bring his players back to watch a couple of innings of Saturday night’s Indiana-Louisville game.

“I don’t really like our players to sit and watch other teams play,” Mainieri said. “I’d rather them relax and focus on their own game. But this might be one of those times where we go for a couple of innings to absorb a little of the atmosphere and see what it looks like all lit up at night.”

Despite all the newness and size of the park, Mainieri joked before leaving Baton Rouge that he might go out on the field with a tape measure — like Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers” — to remind his players that it’s still the same game.

“This year we went to Texas A&M, a new ballpark, and played very well there,” Mainieri said. “The bases are still 90 feet apart, and home plate is still 60 feet, 6 inches away.”

But getting the ball from home plate over the 408-foot sign in center? That might take some doing.

Tigers arrive in Omaha

LSU’s charter flight touched down in Omaha on Thursday morning.

Little league players in town for their own tournament, including a New Orleans team called the Carrollton Boosters, greeted the team upon its arrival, LSU said.

The team practiced for two hours Thursday afternoon at Bellevue East High School, south of Omaha.

“I can’t tell you with 100 percent (certainty) what is going to happen,” Mainieri said in a news release. “But I can tell you if any team can handle it, it’s going to be us.”