Small-ball paying big dividends for baseball team

BY SETH ROBERTS | APRIL 12, 2011 7:20 AM

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Zach McCool’s year hasn’t gone as planned.

The senior utilityman is no longer starting at third base, was temporarily dropped from his customary spot batting second in the lineup, and — most importantly — lost his swing. After posting a robust .344 batting average last season, McCool is hitting just .235 through 29 games.

But McCool is among the country’s best in one offensive category: sacrifice bunts. The 5-7 senior has laid down 11 sac bunts, which leads the Big Ten and is tied for sixth best in the country.

“We talked about moving our runners and giving the team a chance to score them,” McCool said. “[Hitting] in the 2-hole, you have to be a guy that can move the baseball. That’s what I’ve been, and that’s what I’m comfortable doing. Whenever I’ve been asked to lay down a sac bunt, I do it with all my heart and get it down.

“I take pride in that.”

He’s not the only one — four other Hawkeyes have at least five sacrifice bunts on the year. After McCool’s 11, catcher Keith Brand has seven (tied for second in the league), outfielders Trevor Willis and Andrew Host have six (tied for fifth), and shortstop Kurt Lee has five (tied for eighth).

All told, Iowa’s 55 sacrifices are the second-most in the country, trailing only West Virginia’s 56. The Hawkeyes laid down 51 last season.

The team’s selflessness has been a necessity in the first year of the NCAA’s new bat regulations.

College baseball’s old “trampoline” metal bats were banned in favor of deadened sticks that play more like wood, resulting in a power shortage across the country. The Hawkeyes, for example, have hit only five home runs as a team and had just one through their first 25 games, compared with 28 they put over the fences during last season.

Brand said the new equipment regulations played a significant role in defining the team’s unselfish approach this year.

“We always knew that, for our team to be successful, we have to execute [the bunt],” the freshman said. “It’s harder to get runs with the new bats, so you have to go up there and be willing to give up your at-bat to move the runner over — no matter what, you want to get that bunt down.”

The Black and Gold’s current pitching situation makes piecing together runs even more important. Saturday starter Nick Brown, the team’s most consistent pitcher this season, is lost for at least a month with what head coach Jack Dahm called shoulder soreness. Dahm had to make last-second changes to his rotation and threw his bullpen for a full game against Illinois on Sunday after starter Ricky Sandquist, pitching on short rest, was unable to retire a batter.

Dahm said he isn’t sure who will start tonight’s game against Kansas (15-17, 6-6 Big 12), much less who will come out of the bullpen should the starter struggle. Zach Kenyon is unavailable after throwing three innings on Sunday, Tim Fangman threw 51⁄3 over the weekend, and Patrick Lala was shelled in his 21⁄3 frames.

“We’re going to sit down and see who threw how many pitches, and who we can get innings from,” Dahm said on Sunday. “The bottom line is, we have to have our guys ready and healthy for the weekend, so we’re going to piecemeal it together.”

Whoever ends up taking the mound, though, McCool said the offense is going to go about its business as usual.

“We have a lot of confidence in our pitching staff — they’re great, and we know they’re going to give their best to keep the score down,” he said. “We’re going to keep moving the runners in to scoring position. We always say, ‘Get them on, get them over, and get them in.’ That’s what we’re going to keep doing.”

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