THE HOME RUN isn't dead in college baseball--witness the moon shot Florida's Matt LaPorta hit against Tennessee in the College World Series last Friday--but, as in the slimmed-down big leagues, it's suddenly endangered. This season the national average for homers (1.36 per game) fell to its lowest level since 1998, when the NCAA began keeping track. Scoring (12.38 runs per game) was down about 13% since its high in '98.
No steroid crackdown is behind the decline, just rule changes that made aluminum bats less potent. Using lightweight alloys, manufacturers produced bats in the 1990s that sent balls rocketing at up to 115 mph. The result was hitters' heaven. When USC won the '98 Series with an ugly 21-14 win over Arizona State, the NCAA stepped in, mandating that the difference between a bat's length and weight couldn't exceed three--a 34-incher can't weigh less than 31 ounces--and capping exit speeds at around 97 mph. Now, top teams no longer rely on the home run. Last year's champ, Cal State--Fullerton, hit one in six Series games; the total of 17 in the 15-game tournament was the lowest since '90. (Seven were hit in the first eight games this year.) "The issue in 1998 was balance," says NCAA official Ty Halpin. "I think we've brought that back."