Gil LeBreton

NCAA baseball needs a best-of-three first round

Water-logged and fresh out of sustainable pitching, they headed home Sunday and Monday.

Tournament fillers, I guess you could rudely call them.

The Delawares, the Marists, the UMBCs and the Central Connecticut States of the NCAA’s 64-team field.

In truth, most of them never had a chance.

To some of us, the NCAA baseball tournament is a mesmerizing four-week festival.

The ping of the bats. The beards that mom would never allow. Those awful camouflage jerseys. The raw, visceral emotions on display.

Yet, the format is flawed. For most, the deck is stacked.

Because of the tournament’s four-team, double-elimination bracket for the regionals, teams are often being forced to play too many games in too few days.

Year after year, the toll for having to travel through a regional’s losers bracket is paid in pitching. The regional round, therefore, becomes a war of attrition, not a true measure of a team’s successful season.

A better idea has been voiced. Division I baseball coaches now need to push for it.

The NCAA needs to change to a best-of-three series format through the first three rounds. That would entail seeding the teams and adding a first round with 32 hosts instead of 16.

As I said, the idea isn’t unique. It’s been discussed.

But after rain plagued last weekend’s regional round, from Lubbock to Lexington, testing patiences and inconveniencing spectators, the NCAA needs to revisit the issue for more reasons than just the baseball.

When a team runs out of pitching, it’s never a pretty sight.

True, it’s part of the NCAA tournament’s quirky appeal. The final score of the 1998 College World Series title game was 21-14. But is it a true measure of a team’s championship mettle when its sixth-best pitcher outlasts your No. 6 guy?

“What can happen is you lose the first game, and it becomes virtually impossible to come back all the way through,” said Dallas Baptist coach Dan Heefner, whose Patriots lost the regional finale to TCU 15-3 on Monday night.

I asked Heefner about playing best-of-three series in the first round.

“I’ve heard that recommended before,” he said. “It’s a great idea because all season long you play a three-game series. It kind of matches people up a little more evenly.”

Adding 16 host sites would be a boon for college baseball as well. It could extend the tournament’s reach into places that, for whatever reason, have been ignored — namely, the Northeast and Big Ten.

“I’ve been for that for a very, very long time,” said TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle. “There should be 32 best-two-out-of-threes, then 16, then eight. That’s the best format. That’s the format that best represents the way the season is played.”

Schlossnagle, whose team has been fortunate to be a recurring host, endorses the idea of expanding the first round to 32 host sites.

“It would really help grow our sport,” he said. “Of course, you’d have to seed it top to bottom in order to pull that off.

“It’s been talked about a lot by our coaching profession. The challenge is you’d either have to knock a week off of the season or push the College World Series back, which ESPN has said they can’t do.”

Starting the College World Series one week later would mean playing the deciding game around July Fourth.

What could ESPN possibly have on its schedule that it deems more important? That Coney Island hot dog eating contest? Some big poker tournament?

Schlossnagle is right. Seeding the teams would probably make the selection committee’s heads explode.

But you wouldn’t have to seed all 64 teams when seeding only 32 would likely suffice. The unseeded 32 could be used to fill a lot of those geography-friendly slots that the NCAA committee enjoys.

Sadly, in its most recent official discussion (November 2015) about expanding the seeds from eight to 16, the committee decided there was “no need to change the current structure.”

It would take, it appears, an organized push by the college coaches to affect a sea change to a best-of-three first round format. But NCAA officials have to be seeing the problems that the old system is causing.

Namely, empty stadiums at afternoon games when the host school isn’t playing. Spectators having to buy tickets for games they have no intention of attending. The safety issue of coaches being tempted to overwork young pitching arms.

And as we saw here over the weekend, there is the annual issue of the weather.

Some of the rain-related decisions being made at Lupton Stadium were made with multiple games in mind. If, instead, there was only one game to be played each day, there wouldn’t be so many loose ends when the showers came.

Neither Schlossnagle nor Heefner, it should be noted, had to climb aboard a soap box this week. I’m the one who brought up the best-of-three issue, not them, and what do I know?

The first NCAA baseball regional I attended was in Starkville, Miss., 42 years ago. Yikes.

It was a four-team double-elimination regional. The team I was with ran out of pitching.

Gil LeBreton: @gilebreton

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