BANGOR, Maine — Some of the most exciting moments in the history of the Senior League World Series since it arrived in Bangor in 2002 have taken just seconds — the time it takes a baseball to travel from home plate at spacious Mansfield Stadium beyond the outfield fences as much as 400 feet away.
For local fans, few such moments can top Bangor’s magical 2010 run to the world championship final, a journey whose defining memories were long home runs by Josiah Hartley and Andrew Capuano that turned daunting deficits into dramatic victories.
Hartley’s two-run thunderclap in the final game of pool play lifted his team to a 4-3 victory over the defending world champions from the West University Little League of Houston, Texas, and qualified the host team from Maine District 3 for its first trip to the semifinals.
One day later Capuano matched that shot, pulling a 3-1 pitch well over the fence for an equally prodigious three-run home run that rallied Bangor toward a stunning 9-3 victory over Manhattan Beach, Calif., and a berth in the nationally televised title game.
Such long-ball heroics may still make the difference between championship dreams fulfilled and near-misses during the coming week when the Senior League World Series — the Little League baseball championship tournament for 15- and 16-year-olds — returns to the Queen City for the 11th consecutive year beginning Sunday.
It’s more likely, however, that the pivotal moments at this year’s event will hinge on strategy and execution rather than raw power due to a change in bat standards.
Little League International announced late last year that for its Senior League and Big League (ages 17-18) divisions, “All bats not made of a single piece of wood shall meet the batted ball coefficient of restitution [BBCOR] performance standard.”
That standard measures the loss of energy at impact of the ball hitting the barrel of the bat rather than the previous ball exit speed ratio, or BESR, standard that measured the speed of the ball after hitting the bat.
With BBCOR-certified bats, the ball compresses more as it hits the bat than it did in the past, resulting in more energy lost at impact and the ball leaving the bat at a slower speed than it did when struck by the stiffer BESR models.
Colleges have adopted the BBCOR standards in recent years while research at the college level showed that struck balls left BBCOR-certified bats 5 to 6 percent slower than with the BESR bats, and a ball that traveled 400 feet before would travel approximately 370 feet after being struck by the BBCOR bats — meaning fewer home runs.
BBCOR-certified bats were introduced into the high school ranks this spring, and while its effect on the power game locally is anecdotal at this point, it has been noticeable.
“During the high school season there was a total of two home runs hit here [at Mansfield Stadium],” said Mike Brooker of Bangor, executive director of the Senior League World Series, “and I’m told that during the American Legion season that two kids on the Bangor team had a home run each and that was it.”
Decreasing ball speed at its impact with the bat was done primarily in the interest of player safety, but there’s also the sense today that with the new standard players must truly hit the ball on the bat’s “sweet spot” in order to be rewarded with a hit of any type, particularly a home run.
“You can’t shank it anymore and expect to get a base hit, you really have to hit the ball,” said Ron St. Pierre, who managed the 2010 Bangor team. “It’s like playing with wooden bats, it makes the game more like the old days of baseball.
“With the other bats, kids would hit the ball off the handle and it would make it over the infield. Now if you hit it on the handle it’s going to be an out because the ball won’t go as far as fast.”
Coaches and managers have been quick to adjust to the changing nature of the game, with their outfielders playing more shallow to track down the fly balls that aren’t hit as far, while offensively relying more on advancing runners one base at a time and using team speed to put pressure on opposing pitchers and defenses rather than waiting for the sudden impact of a home run.
Such tactics worked well for Hampden Senior League manager Basil Closson, who earlier this week led his team to the host team’s berth in this year’s SLWS by defeating Bangor twice en route to the Maine District 3 championship.
“In the previous games we played some small ball,” said Closson after his team’s title-clinching 7-2 victory over Bangor on Thursday evening. “I told the kids that speed generally doesn’t go into a slump and aggressiveness doesn’t slump typically, so when we had a chance we cognizantly took pitches, we tried to work the pitch count and we tried to be aggressive on the basepaths.
“In one inning the first time we played Bangor [an 8-5 Hampden win on Tuesday] we laid down five bunts and mixed it up a little bit because with the BBCOR bats it’s hard to string together consecutive hits. You have to be creative.”
Such creativity may make the difference in this year’s Senior League World Series, where international teams from Canada, Guatemala, Italy and New Zealand will take on five U.S. regional champions as well as the host team over five days of pool play leading to the semifinals next Friday and the world championship game on Saturday, Aug. 18.
“The expectation I have regarding the World Series is that we’ll see more small ball and not too many gap shots, and that the teams that are going to benefit from the BBCOR bat are the teams that have quickness to begin with,” said Brooker. “I think you’ll see more bunting. I think you’ll see more hit-and-run. I don’t think you’ll see teams playing for the big inning, it just doesn’t happen that much anymore.”