A few teams might change from year to year because only the top eight regular-season finishers qualify, but one doesn’t notice the changing field so much. That’s because Hoover has become to SEC baseball what Omaha is to the whole of college baseball.
But something feels different about the 2011 tournament. From storylines to the brand of baseball played at Regions Park, color the tourney different right down to its BBCOR.
In fact, a year made all the difference.
A year ago, Auburn came here as the SEC West Division champion and destined to host an NCAA regional. A year later, the Tigers must win their losers’ bracket game against Georgia today just to stay alive for NCAA consideration.
A year ago, LSU won the tournament for the third consecutive year. A year later, there’s no LSU.
A year ago, South Carolina went 0-2 here for the second year in a row then went on to win the national title. A year later, the Gamecocks beat Auburn 7-3 in the first round to end a five-game losing streak in this tournament.
But the biggest change is the power shift. Thanks to new bats and departed stars, the SEC tourney seems destined to power down.
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Georgia combined to hit exactly four home runs in Wednesday’s first round. Alabama hit one in a 7-4 victory over Arkansas.
South Carolina-Auburn game went homer-free.
Regions Park is a deep, pitcher’s park and has a way of draining power from college baseball’s power conference. The tournament produced just 15 home runs in 2010 and 18 in 2009, and this year‘s tourney is on a similar pace after the first of five days.
Then again, they homered 27 times in Hoover in 2008, marking the second highest total in league-tourney history.
So, it can be done at Regions Park, but the park has help powering things down this year. The new BBCOR bats are designed to power down college baseball, and it shows in the SEC.
Auburn hit a school record 131 home runs in 2010, and returning players hit 62 of them. The Tigers have 38 this season.
Taylor Dugas’ solo shot against Arkansas on Wednesday gave Alabama and SEC-low 20 homers for the season. The Tide had 61 a year ago, which would lead the SEC this year.
Florida came into the SEC Tournament with a league-best 52.
Alabama’s power down owes in part to losing a combined 51 home runs between 2010 seniors Clay Jones (17), Jake Smith (15), Josh Rutledge (10) and Ross Wilson (9).
Auburn lost a few, too. Former Tigers Hunter Morris (23), Brian Fletcher (22) and Trent Mummey (17) hit a combined 61.
But the bats, designed to specs just a hair above those of the best wooden bats, have done the job the NCAA wanted --- much to the chagrin of coaches and players around the country.
The bats are also changing the look of SEC Tournament baseball, and Alabama’s two first-inning bunts against Arkansas gave a glimpse.
It’s been a small-ball kind of year for the Tide, which is why Dugas’ home run brought a smiles in the postgame news conference.
“When we get a chance to get one out of the park,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said, “we’ll take it.”
Expect more of that outlook throughout the tournament, which concludes Sunday. New bats and the same old pitcher’s park mean a different kind of SEC Tournament.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.