JUCO Q&A: The Games

Home runs are down across the country, earned-run averages have dropped and the number of sacrifice bunts are soaring.

College baseball has changed — for the better, coaches and players say.

When the NCAA adopted the new lower exit-speed bats this year, the NJCAA followed suit. No longer are aluminum bats being made to increase a hitter’s power. Just the opposite: They perform more like wood bats.

About the only thing that’s gone up are the number of close games.

“I’ve never seen it so close,” Grayson County (Texas) College coach Dusty Hart said of the Southwestern District tournament. “We won a game one-nothing.”

That was the Vikings’ second game of the tournament against McLennan. The next day against New Mexico Junior College, Grayson won 3-2 in 11 innings.

“I want to see how they play out there,” Hart said of Grand Junction’s altitude compared to the heavy air in Texas. “Our park is pretty hitter-friendly.”

The Vikings hit 47 home runs this season, but allowed only 17. Pitchers are no longer afraid to challenge hitters.

“You can definitely go after hitters,” Southern Union (Ala.) State Community College pitcher Zack John said. “You don’t have to be worried if you miss your spots and they hit it out of the ballpark. The pitchers love it; it makes our stats better. It’s easier on us.”

John is 3-2 with seven saves and a 2.76 ERA in 23 games. His coach, Jabo Jordan, said it was time for a change.

“The game has switched back to the pitchers,” he said. “I believe it needed to. Pitchers didn’t have a prayer. (Hitters) could get hit on the thumbs and get a double up the middle.”

The length of games has also shrunk with lower scores and the new pace of play rules. With no runners on base, the pitcher must deliver the pitch within 20 seconds of receiving the ball. Between innings, teams have a maximum of 90 seconds between half-innings.

This season, Mesa State College’s nine-inning games lasted just more than two hours.

Maverick coach Chris Hanks, a former junior college player and JUCO World Series MVP, says he thinks games this week will mirror that time frame, especially early in the week when everyone’s top pitchers are fresh.

Southern Union catcher Drew Cofield has noticed a change in approach at the plate.

“Everyone’s hitting more toward right field,” he said of hitting to the opposite field. “It takes a lot more skill and you have to hit it more on the sweet spot for a line drive.”

Coaches are putting hit-and-run plays on more, calling for more sacrifice bunts and playing small ball.

“I like it,” Hart said. “It’s more fun to me.”

# # #

Q: Can I keep a foul ball or a home run ball?
A: No. Balls hit into the stands are retrieved for continued use in the tournament. Fans who catch a foul ball or home run receive a souvenir baseball in exchange for the game ball.

Q: How many baseballs are used during the tournament?
A: 40 dozen.

Q: How many souvenir balls are given away?
A: “We get 70 dozen, but we give about 30 dozen to B&H to sell.” Walt Bergman

Q: Why did the giveaway start?
A: About 20 years ago, the committee started exchanging game balls for souvenir balls. “We started with 20 dozen game balls and I was really stingy with them. We guarded each ball. That’s why we started the shagger thing and made sure we got them back, because we had to. People like the logo, the Alpine Bank JUCO World Series logo on it. It’s a souvenir.” Walt Bergman, director of tournament play.

Q: Is the baseball the same as used in the major leagues?
A: “They’re supposed to be. They’re R-100, it’s the same ball, but recently I was at a (Rockies) game and caught a foul ball and the seams appear smaller in the Major League ball to me. I don’t know if it’s the humidor, but it seems that way. It’s supposed to be the same ball.” Walt Bergman

Q: When the tournament is over, who gets the game balls?
A: “We donate some to the high schools, each of them got two dozen last year, and Mesa gets some of the used game balls for bp.” Walt Bergman

Q: How do they determine who plays who?
A: “It’s a nine-year rotation. Through nine years, every district plays one another and it’s set up to move through the bracket, rotates into those spots so it’s a level playing field. Basketball has a blind draw every year; baseball rotates so not one district gets an advantage, you don’t play the same district two years in a row.” Mark Krug, NJCAA assistant executive director

Q: Can I be a batboy?
A: “It’s a service club perk for hosting the teams. They select the batboys. The key there is to see those guys in the dugout and make friends with them.” Lee Young, chairman of the host committee

Q: Why do they put the state’s names on the scoreboard instead of the school names?
A: The old scoreboard had “home” and “visitor” painted on the score by innings area, so hooks were installed to hang signs with the names of the states. That tradition is carried on by the current pressbox crew even though the new pressbox allows for the team names to be put in digitally, in part because it’s a national tournament, pressbox chief Reford Theobold said. When two Texas teams play, the school names are used.

Q: How are umpires selected?
A: Umpires who work junior college games submit resumes to the NJCAA, the directors of tournament play or Jim Paronto, the chief of umpires.

Q: Is an umpire from the same district as the team, assigned to their game? 
A: Umpires from the same district as one of the teams are not allowed to umpire behind home plate, but in the past, an umpire from Texas called balls and strikes when two Texas teams played.

Q: If nature calls during a game, what’s an umpire to do?
A: “If you watch, some of these guys don’t like to drink a whole lot during the game because that does happen. We have had a few times we’ll go out and tell the coaches, ‘Hey, nature calls.’ The umpire hustles back and takes care of it. We’ll go rake a little extra.” It doesn’t happen often, though. “ Those guys have worked all season and they know how much water they can take on. They pride themselves on not having to go anywhere, but it does happen. The good thing is, the crowd cheers them when they come back.” Walt Bergman

Q: How is home team determined?
A: By coin flip. During a coach’s meeting before the banquet Friday night, the coaches flip for the first-round games; the team at the top of the bracket calls the flip.

Q: If there’s a coin flip for who plays in the championship game, how is that determined?
A: “If we have to flip a coin … it’s odd man out. Each one is given a quarter and it’s a three-way flip and the odd man goes to the title game. I remember on year when Walt and I had to do that, the coach who won the flip was jumping up and down, rolling on the ground like he won the championship. He got another day to rest his pitcher. I’ll never forget that.” Jamie Hamilton

Q: Can you explain the mercy rule?
A: All JUCO World Series games are scheduled for nine innings. However, two run-rules are in effect, 10 after 5 and 8 after 7. If one team is ahead by 10 or more runs after five complete innings have been played (or 4 ½ if the home team is ahead) or 8 or more runs after 7 innings, the game is called.

Q: Where is batting practice taken, and how is that determined?
A: “It’s two hours before game time, the visitors hit at Canyon View and the home team is at Bergman. Practice times are first come, first served.” Kenny Johnson, practice fields coordinator

Q: Can I watch batting practice?
A: “Sure, you can come hang out. There are stands at Canyon View. Last year we had to cordon off a spot when Southern Nevada was hitting (for people who wanted to watch Bryce Harper).” Kenny Johnson. PS: Fans must stay off the field and not disturb the teams during practice, and allow them to get on the bus after practice so they can arrive to the game on time.

Q: Are the games on TV this year?
A: No.

Q: What about the Internet?
A: Yes. Every game is streamed live on NJCAATV and Panhandle Sports Broadcasting (http://www.njcaa.org/tv; http://www.psblive.com; there is also a link on the JUCO website, jucogj.org)

Q: Does JUCO do a seventh-inning stretch of any particular interest?
A: A rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is played before the bottom of the seventh inning — and sometimes before the top of the seventh inning, if the music operator looks at the scoreboard wrong. On Tuesday night this year, Scott Brown of the Scooter Brown Band will lead the crowd in the song.

Q: Do college and pro scouts attend the games?
A: Yes. Between 15 and 20 scouts from four-year colleges and professional teams attend games, but there are usually more pro scouts than college.

Q: How long do the scouts stay in GJ?
A: “They’re all here through Monday, because we like to have the barbecue on Monday. Also, it’s their biggest bang for the buck, get the most games in. They’re working, so their next gig is Omaha. They’ll stay longer if they’re really working on somebody.” Bruce Hill, vice chairman

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