Vols' run at 'unbreakable' HR mark impresses Bertman, whose teams were faces of 1990s 'gorilla ball'

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Until he saw messages flying back and forth on the 1990s-era LSU players' group text thread late this season, Skip Bertman didn't realize the Tennessee team of 2024 was making a serious run at the Holy Grail of the college baseball record book.

Bertman's 1997 Tigers slugged 188 home runs in 70 games on their way to the second of two straight national championships and were the inspiration for the phrase "gorilla ball,” the descriptor for the style of offense in an era when bats were juiced and balls flew out of ballparks at unprecedented rates.

No team had come close to approaching 188 until this year's Volunteers, who have 178 in 70 games heading into Game 1 of the best-of-three College World Series finals against Texas A&M on Saturday.

“My God, I thought that was the one record that never could be broken,” the retired Bertman said Thursday from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, summarizing the text traffic among his former players. “And here they are, I guess, (178), which is incredibly close and obviously means they could break it in the future."

The record probably is safe this year. The Vols would have to average nearly four homers a game the rest of the way to break it — and that's if the finals go three games.

As it is, Tennessee ranks second all-time in single-season home runs, and it's the only team to ever have five players hit at least 20 each in a season.

“Really astonishing,” Bertman said.

Homers are harder to come by at Charles Schwab Field than they were at Rosenblatt Stadium, where the LSU teams regularly took up residence during Junes of the 1990s.

The ’97 Tigers hit 10 homers in four CWS games. The ’24 Vols have hit five in three games so far.

Christian Moore homered while hitting for the cycle and Kavares Tears also connected in their opener against Florida State, but it was a triple, double, walk and three singles that brought them back from a three-run deficit in a 12-11 walk-off win.

Tears and Reese Chapman homered to get the Vols' offense going in their 6-1 win over North Carolina on Sunday. Blake Burke's ninth-inning homer against Florida State on Wednesday happened when the 7-2 win was all but secured.

Tennessee is batting a CWS-best .321, and it has three of the top five hitters in Moore (.571), Burke (.500) and Dreiling (.500). The Vols are batting .333 with runners in scoring position, .375 with runners on base and .428 with two outs. Batters leading off innings have combined to hit .357.

“We’re just loaded throughout the lineup,” Vols pitcher Zander Sechrist said. “And obviously it prepares you for moments like this.”

Though Tennessee is built for power to take advantage of its hitter-friendly ballpark in Knoxville, it has shown it can produce plenty of offense in different ways at the expansive Omaha stadium.

“Sometimes it doesn’t happen for you the way you want,” coach Tony Vitello said, “but we knew our guys would take consistently good swings. We knew they were very physical, and we knew we’d have some depth.”

Bertman said he sees a lot of his 1997 team in the Vols, even though the bats they swing have been drastically toned down from the ones used three decades ago.

Through 70 games, Tennessee has five sacrifice bunts and averages 0.70 steals per game to rank near the bottom of Division I in both. LSU had only four sacrifice bunts and averaged 1.01 steals over its 70 games in 1997.

“One thing I'm sure Coach goes for is the homer, and he doesn't bunt or steal a lot, and that's one way to do it,” Bertman said. “Honestly, it’s a wonderful effort by Tennessee."

Asked what would happen if the 1997 LSU Tigers played the 2024 Tennessee Volunteers at the old Rosenblatt using the bats of the late '90s, Bertman laughed and said he could imagine homers galore and a 30-28 final score.

The 86-year-old Bertman still watches plenty of college baseball, particularly in the Southeastern Conference, and he said Texas A&M is a team capable of holding down the Vols' offense.

The Aggies have allowed a total of three runs in three CWS games, and for the season they rank in the top 10 nationally in ERA (3.86) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.8) and they lead the country with 11 shutouts.

Justin Lamkin, who has thrown eight shutout innings in two CWS starts, has been a revelation as the No. 2 pitcher behind ace Ryan Pranger. They also have a deep bullpen featuring National Stopper of the Year Evan Aschenbeck as the closer. His 1.59 ERA leads the nation.

“That team can pitch," Bertman said. "I mean, that team can really pitch.”

___

AP college sports: https://apnews.com/hub/college-sports