By Greg DeVillers, Herald Staff Writer
North Border's baseball team is averaging only 3.3 runs per game. But the Eagles have been competitive in almost every game.
Three of North Border's seven wins have been by three or fewer runs; nine of its 13 losses have been by three or fewer runs.
“That's the wood bat syndrome,” Eagles coach Jeff Carpenter said. “Everybody is playing more small ball.
“With aluminum bats, two or three runs isn't a lot to make up. But it is with wood bats. It's harder to string together a bunch of hits, and you don't get the big blows. I haven't seen a home run this year, either by us or anybody we've played.”
North Dakota high schools made a mandatory switch from aluminum to wood bats this season. With the regular season nearing its completion, the consensus of coaches in the area is that the switch has made a big change in the game.
“It's unbelievable how it has changed the game,” said Dave Hanson, the Drayton-St. Thomas-Valley coach. “We haven't hit a home run this year; last year, we hit 15. We're having a tough time hitting the baseball out of the infield at times.
“It fits my game. I like small ball - bunting, stealing, stuff like that. We're not seeing nearly as many runs.”
Hatton-Northwood coach Chad Omdahl also has seen a decline in power.
The Hatton ballpark is hitter-friendly - 270 feet down the left field line, 325 down the right field line and, while the alleys are deep, the fences angle in so that it's only 290 feet to dead center.
Yet Omdahl's team hasn't hit a home run this season after getting approximately 10 in 2006.
“You look at our park and you'd think there would be some home runs,” Omdahl said. “The sweet spot is so much smaller on wood bats. It takes quite a bit to get the ball over outfielders' heads.
“We're stealing more bases. We're seeing a lot more bunting and hit-and-run.”
The switch to wood bats has reduced the long-ball capabilities. As a result, that's led to more of a defensive game.
“We're seeing outfielders playing more shallow,” Lakota coach Joe Harder said. “You're daring people to try to hit the ball over (outfielders') heads. Now the little bloops that might have dropped in for hits before are being taken away, too. It's been tougher to score runs.”
Likewise, coaches say, infielders have more time to react to ground balls that aren't coming off the wood bats as hard and fast as they were off aluminum bats.
“It's closed the gap between the good teams and the lower-tier teams,” Omdahl said. “It's made average pitchers into good pitchers, because the ball is staying in the ballpark more against them.”
Breaks of the game
One concern heading into the season was a cost factor.
Teams had to purchase a new stock of wood bats. And, while the aluminum bats usually would last for several seasons, how many wood bats would be broken?
Coaches have found there haven't been a lot of breaks. Lakota, for instance, hasn't had a broken bat yet; Hatton-Northwood has had only one. Langdon, on the other hand, has broken 10.
Wood bats range in price from $40 to $100, coaches said. But the higher-end bats also have 90-day warranties, so any new bats broken during the season will be replaced.
“We've only broken three so far,” Hanson said. “That does surprise me. I can remember the old days when it seemed like they'd break a lot easier. Maybe they're built a little better now.”
The bottom line for coaches is that wood bats have changed the game. Bunts, stolen bases and hit-and-run plays are now in vogue.
“You have to coach a lot more,” Carpenter said. “You can't just sit around waiting for the home runs and the big innings. There's more strategy in the wood-bat game. We're seeing lower-scoring games and not as many blowouts.”
Said Hanson: “Wood bats have been an equalizer. It's a slower game, a lower-scoring game. It's brought the lower-level teams up some and dropped some of the better teams down a notch.”