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Prep baseball: Coaches adjust to IHSA pitch count rule this past season

Coaches adjust to IHSA pitch count rule during past season

For larger schools such as DeKalb and Sycamore, the IHSA pitch count rule for baseball mostly meant there were a few times they had to pull their ace pitcher late in the game.

For a smaller school such as Indian Creek, which rarely had a pitcher go the distance, the pitch count rule forced a balancing act with staying competitive while simultaneously making sure they had enough arms to stay within the new boundaries.

“It was definitely in the back of my mind heading into almost every game,” said Indian Creek first-year coach Kevin Poterek, who said he had to pull a pitcher because of the new rule about six times. “Some games, I came in with all of my arms and we had a break coming up after, but if there were multiple games in a row, the feeling I got talking with other coaches is it was the smaller schools that don’t have three or four solid arms.

“I think it was a Little Ten coach saying they got handcuffed a lot because of the pitching rules, especially if you’re a team that really relies on one guy as much as possible without the luxury of having a second guy. I never had that issue, but a couple of the other teams that weren’t doing so well, I heard that a lot more.”

The main impacts of the new pitch count were that no pitcher could start a new batter after reaching 105 pitches and required a certain amount of days rest after hitting certain numbers of pitches – a pitcher needed at least two days of rest if they threw between 61 and 75 pitches, for example.

Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh said that the Spartans’ team rules in terms of pitch count are more stringent than the IHSA’s new rule, which took effect before the start of this past season. While there were a few times that Spartans’ ace Jack Mizgalski either felt the threat of being pulled – he finished his no-hitter against Hononegah with 99 pitches – or had to leave the game, like against Batavia, Cavanaugh said that being a larger school made it so the impact was minimal.

“I’d say that it didn’t affect us very much,” Cavanaugh said. “With Jack, there were one or two times that I might have let him go an extra batter or two, but for the most part, 100 pitches has kind of been our limit. ... No doubt about it – the small schools get hamstrung more than the big schools do.”

DeKalb coach Dedric Wright faced a similar dilemma with his ace Bryce Wheeler, including having to pull him with two outs in the bottom of the seventh of a close playoff game. Wheeler, who pitched 62/3 innings with 12 strikeouts against Rockford East in a regional semifinal, was pulled and the Barbs’ relievers allowed the tying run to score to force extra innings.

DeKalb eventually won, 2-1, in nine innings.

“That’s the game that sticks out in my mind, where if there wasn’t a pitch count, he probably would have gotten the next batter out, but it’s there for a reason. It’s there for a reason,” Wright said.

To make matters more difficult for a team such as Indian Creek, poor weather postponed games to the point where the Timberwolves had one stretch in which they played seven games in nine days.

“The pitch count, the way it’s written in black or white, it doesn’t account that you can’t predict Mother Nature, which led to those stretches of six out of seven or four out of five days,” said Poterek, who added that he had heard there could be pressure from athletic directors at smaller schools to schedule fewer games. “Those are things you can’t control, so you do your best to work around it.”

While the initial attention from the new rule is likely to focus on the high-pitch outings from a starter, teams also felt the pinch of keeping the pitch count of relievers under the limit of between one and 30 an outing – which would allow them to come back the next day.

During the series against Sycamore, Wright made a conscious effort to have Eric Nelson, who had started a number of games for the Barbs, come out of the bullpen in the latter parts of the game.

Nelson finished throwing in all three games of the series, including the seventh inning in all three contests.

Cavanaugh, who said he has not had any pitchers with serious arm injuries in his two-decade career at Sycamore, said he’s seen more risk from not giving enough rest to pitchers – not necessarily a high pitch count in a single outing.

“I think the IHSA missed the boat a little bit with that,” he said. “I don’t think 120 pitches is bad for a kid, if they’re stretched out. If you have a kid accustomed, you get him to 90 pitches in the offseason or at the beginning of the season, then I don’t think 120 pitches is bad if he gets the rest he needs.”

The coaches said they wouldn’t mind seeing a tweak in the rule that would bump up the total number of pitches a starter could throw later in the season – when the weather has warmed and the player’s arm is in better shape. The current rule for postseason is identical to the regular season, except that there is no maximum number of pitches in a player’s next outing.

One benefit of the new rule change was that now when a pitcher has passed the pitch count, particularly late in the game when they may be trying to go the distance, the coach is no longer the bad guy when he comes out to pull the pitcher from the game.

“The pitchers took it a lot more in stride than they have in the past, because now there’s a hard-and-fast rule that says you can’t break this rule. If you do, you forfeit this game,” Cavanaugh said. “They also knew that’s what it’s going to be. It was 105 pitches, not a coach’s decision. In that respect, it made it easier to pull a guy when you needed to pull him.”

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