Headed to state
Baylor (20-11): Because of graduation and a lack of pitching depth, there weren't many expectations for the Red Raiders. They got a late shot in the arm from slugger John Tipton, who emerged as a standout on the mound. Along the way, the Red Raiders gave coach Gene Etter his 800th career win.
Red Bank (19-21): Who would have thought? The Lions entered the postseason on a 14-game losing streak and now have won seven of eight to capture district and region championships and a state berth.
South Pittsburg (31-7): The Pirates, strong all year, have played all comers from their own Class A to Class AAA opponents. Led by Jacob Toney and Matt Allen, they have pitching depth, always a state tournament key.
Walker Valley (27-11): The Mustangs were out "throwing" ducks Saturday for the Chattanooga Retriever Club trials as a way of celebrating the school's first state baseball tournament berth. It has become the club's biggest fundraiser. While pitcher Bobby Towne (9-1) has been a highlight and an anchor, this year's group has the highest team batting average of any Mustangs team in the last three years.
In earning its spot Friday in this week's state baseball tournament in Murfreesboro, South Pittsburg returned to 2010-11 form by scoring 12 runs in a shutout victory.
It was an anomaly for 2011-12, perhaps primarily because of new mandated bats. The BBCOR bats that were formally introduced in March performed as expected -- fewer home runs and the elimination of bloop singles that had been the norm with BESR bats, the BBCOR predecessor.
Teams generally have put more emphasis on getting one or two runs rather than waiting on long-ball-driven big innings.
"Last year at this point in the year, we were averaging almost 11 runs per game. This year it's down to about seven," South Pittsburg coach Wes Stone said.
The Pirates' home run production is down by more than half -- from 25 to 11.
"The numbers are the same as the college game, and I'm sure a lot of it is the bat because of that smaller sweet spot," Stone said.
Whitwell, which made it to the region semifinals last week before falling to Boyd-Buchanan, went the entire season without a home run. Walker Valley, which is making its first state-tournament trip following a 1-0 sectional win over Tullahoma, hit no home runs at home this year.
"Balls don't fly out of our park anyway," Mustangs coach Joe Shamblin said. "I think we've had two in three years. No joke -- including opponents, three home runs. But a lot of bloop hits [off the handle and end of the bat] that would have gotten down last year are just soft fly balls to the infield."
Most coaches maintained, though, that the really good hitters are still going to get their share of good swings.
"There weren't as many 10-hit games out there as in the past," Notre Dame coach George Oleksik said. "We did run -- steal and move runners with sacrifice bunts -- a lot more than in the past."
The Irish lost in their region championship by one run in a low-scoring extra-inning game.
"We made adjustments during the year to try and put ourselves in better situations to score. If a leadoff guy got on, unless it was the No. 3 or 4 hitter at the plate, we tried to bunt the leadoff guy over," Oleksik said.
The bunt became a bigger part of South Pittsburg's offensive scheme also.
"They're way up, higher than in any of the first three years," Stone said of his bunt numbers. "We are now more likely to bunt. In two region games, every time there was a bunt situation we were trying to bunt. In the past we might not have been so quick to do it.
"Runs are more precious now."
Said Red Bank coach Trey Hicks: "I haven't really thought about the [bat] change since early in the year. There were some games we scored 15 runs and others where we scored two. The guys I expected to hit well did."
The new bats have benefited some pitchers.
"I think it has helped the guys who were able to stay around the plate, and the pitchers were able to concentrate on throwing strikes rather than making the perfect pitch," Shamblin said.
"If you square up good on a pitch that's coming 88 [mph], it's still going to go," Hicks said. "Kids that throw hard can still be hit hard. It's the kids throwing softly, hitting the corners and keeping people off-balance, that have benefited."
Most teams spent extra time in the batting cages -- Walker Valley has the highest team average it's had in three years -- and almost all worked harder in the field.
"You had to play better defense," Oleksik said. "If you made a few errors they were really magnified when the score was 3-2 or 4-3 instead of 12-11.
"If a kid hit for a higher average this year, he really had to earn it."
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...