OMAHA, Neb. — Home runs — lots and lots of them — have defined this year's NCAA baseball tournament.
A total of 381 have been hit in 123 games so far, the highest total through super regionals since at least 2005. History suggests it is unlikely homers will come at the same rate when the stage moves to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha for the College World Series beginning Saturday.
When the ballpark opened in 2011, it quickly earned a reputation for being the place where home runs go to die. While the number of CWS homers has increased since the NCAA went to a ball with flat seams that provides less air resistance, teams that are most successful find gaps in the expansive outfield for extra-base hits and advancing runners. And, of course, strong pitching and defense always help.
Paul Mainieri's final game of a 15-season tenure as LSU's baseball coach was a 15-6 super regional loss at Tennessee on Sunday, when his Tigers and the Volunteers combined for 10 home runs in the first 17 hits. As he headed into retirement, Mainieri — who led LSU to five CWS berths, the 2009 title and a runner-up finish in 2017 — offered some perspective on such a game happening in Omaha.
"There might not be 10 home runs hit the entire tournament up there," Mainieri said.
Home runs have been up all season, though. The rate of 0.87 per team per game through May 30 already was on track to be the highest since 2010, and that figure is 1.55 in tournament games. Teams combined for five or more homers in 33 regional and super regional games, according to AP research, and the high was 11 in a regional game between Ole Miss and Southern Miss.
There were 38 instances of a player hitting multiple homers in a game, and there were 13 grand slams.
No team enters the CWS on a bigger power surge than Tennessee, which has hit 16 homers in five tournament games. The Vols have homered at least once in 26 of their past 30 games, including 15 with multiple homers and seven with at least four.
How will that homer-heavy offense carry over to Omaha?
"The easy answer would be as much as they've leaned on the home run down the stretch, it has potential for them to not be nearly as effective because it's so much more difficult to get the ball out of TD Ameritrade than most ballparks," said ESPN analyst Chris Burke, a three-time All-American for Tennessee from 1999 to 2001.
"However, I do think the ball is carrying much better this year, and we've seen in the last few years in Omaha that while it's certainly not an easy place to get the ball out of, it's traveling out of that ballpark much more regularly since they switched to the current ball. I would expect the home run to still very much be in play in Omaha this year, but I think Tennessee is going to have find some other ways to score."
TD Ameritrade's dimensions are 335 feet down the lines, 375 to the power alleys and 408 to center. The cavernous downtown stadium sits on low ground a few blocks from the Missouri River, and ball flight is suppressed because games this time of year typically are played in high humidity and batters often hit into a south wind.
There were a total of 25 homers hit in 59 CWS games from 2011-14 (0.21 per team per game). With the flat-seamed ball, there have been 88 homers in 80 CWS games (0.55) since 2015.
Coach Elliott Avent brought North Carolina State to the CWS in 2013, the first of two straight years when only three balls left the park. This week, he recalled watching his star player, Trea Turner, raise a fist in premature celebration after he drove a ball deep to left late in a game against UCLA.
What he thought was a three-run homer turned out to be just a long out.
"I jumped out of the dugout, which I never do, and that ball didn't get out and so we lost to UCLA," Avent said. "I remember it's tough to get the ball out of there."
Avent said his team, which plays Stanford in the CWS opener after hitting 13 homers in six tournament games, can't depend on the long ball in Omaha.
"You have to be a team that can score different ways," he said. "We have team speed, we can bunt, we can drive the ball out of the ballpark. But it's about singles and hitting gaps as much as anything."
Jeff Altier, chairman of the Division I Baseball Committee, said he expects plenty of home runs in Omaha — and strikeouts — because the college game has evolved in the same way as professional baseball.
For batters, that has meant that trying to achieve both optimal launch angle and exit velocity, which have become the holy grail of hitting. For pitchers, it has meant working the upper part of the strike zone to counter upward swings.
It's common for batters to swing for the fences throughout every at-bat, and that has led to increased strikeouts. Fifteen teams in this year's 64-team tournament, including every CWS qualifier except Arizona, have struck out at least 10 batters per nine innings; Arizona pitchers have averaged 9.0.
The D-I season strikeout figure went over 8.0 per team per nine innings for the first time in 2019 and has not gone below that since.
"I honestly think it's just the approach to hitting that is now in the game, more of a major league mentality," Altier said. "Launch angle, swinging full effort, pitchers pitching up more because that's the way to beat the drop and lift. I think you see more (pitching) mistakes, and guys are bigger, stronger than they've ever been in college baseball.
"Hitting the ball farther is natural."
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES
At TD Ameritrade Park Omaha (Neb.)
All times Eastern
Saturday, June 19
Stanford (38-15) vs. N.C. State (35-18), 2 p.m.
Vanderbilt (45-15) vs. Arizona (45-16), 7 p.m.
Sunday, June 20
Tennessee (50-16) vs. Virginia (35-25), 2 p.m.
Texas (47-15) vs. Mississippi State (45-16), 7 p.m.