BANGOR, Maine — When Hampden Academy first baseman Fred Knight homered during the top of the 11th inning of the Broncos’ 3-2 Eastern Maine Class A quarterfinal victory at Bangor, it was believed to be the first blast to leave spacious Mansfield Stadium this year.
That decrease in the long ball has been one of several changes resulting from the implementation of new bat standards designed to reduce the speed of the ball after impact in the interest of player safety.
“I definitely think the bats are a factor,” said Foxcroft Academy coach Mark Chevalier, whose team will play Waterville in Wednesday night’s Eastern Maine Class B final at Mansfield Stadium after qualifying for the Eastern C title game in 2011. “You see a lot more teams playing shallow in the outfield, which we did last year, too, but I don’t know if we could have gotten away with it in Class B without the new bats.”
With fewer slugfests resulting from the decline not only in home runs but extra-base hits in general, teams have had to become more creative in generating offense.
“We’ve used the hit-and-run more as a strategy, and we’ve bunted more than we did last year,” said Lewiston coach Todd Cifelli. “But when you sacrifice outs it’s harder to have a big inning, so it’s a Catch-22 that way.”
More aggressive play on the basepaths has been another tactic employed in the effort to move runners closer to crossing home plate 90 feet at a time.
“We run a lot,” said Chevalier, whose team has averaged nearly five stolen bases per contest. “We would have run anyways but I know there were games we had no business winning that we won only because we were aggressive on the bases.”
Lewiston actually had scored one more run this season than in 2011 entering Tuesday’s Eastern A final against Messalonskee of Oakland, a statistic skewed by the Blue Devils’ 27 runs in a win over Mount Ararat of Topsham and 17 runs in a victory over Oxford Hills of South Paris.
“Our batting average is very similar to last year, too, but where the difference is noticeable is in slugging percentage,” said Cifelli.
Lewiston’s slugging percentage — or total bases from base hits divided by at-bats — was .431 for the 2012 regular season, compared to .473 in both 2010 and 2011.
“What’s different is you see more hitting up the middle and the other way, where last year you hit the ball to all fields,” said Cifelli. “Teams were more explosive offensively last year.”
Foxcroft’s team batting average has climbed in recent games, attributed in part to becoming better adapted to the realities of the new bat standards as well as the influence of Mother Nature.
“For us, the weather’s also a factor,” said Chevalier. “It’s warmer, and we’re getting more days where the wind seems to be blowing out so we’re hitting better, more like what I would have thought all year.
“But it’s still not necessarily translating into a ton of runs. Our offensive numbers are a lot healthier now than they were two weeks ago, but we’ve definitely hit a lot balls that would have been gappers or over the outfielder’s head before but now have been outs.”
Postseason scoring in Eastern Maine is actually up slightly from a year ago, 10.4 runs per game through the regional semifinals compared to 9.3 runs per game in 2011. However, the 2012 numbers are taken from a significantly larger number of games — 38 compared to 27 a year ago — because two-thirds of the teams in each division qualified for the playoffs this year compared to 50 percent in 2011.
“Teams have good pitching and are using only their best pitchers at this time of year,” said Chevalier. “Usually postseason games are more low scoring.
“We definitely know that falling behind by a few runs early makes it tough to come back, and I’m kind of amazed that we’ve managed to come back against good pitchers several times this year,” added the Foxcroft coach, whose team has scored two extra-inning victories this postseason. “We don’t feel confident that we can fall behind early and slug our way back, we want to get an early lead and pitch and play defense. That’s how we won more games last year.”