Pitching staffs stretched to limit
It's been a cold, wet spring.
Nobody knows that better than area high school sports teams.
It started with snow storms that prevented teams from getting outside to practice during the pre-season and has continued with almost daily rain storms that have forced postponement after postponement during the regular season.
While all spring sport programs have been affected by the weather, no sport has felt the brunt of Mother Nature's force more than baseball.
That's because postponements, and the resulting schedule crunching that they cause, impacts baseball pitching like no single element in any other spring sport.
The PIAA has strict rules to protect pitchers' arms, limiting them to no more than 14 innings in one week while also establishing a minimum number of days rest in between mound appearances. That rest is contingent on the number of innings thrown during an outing and ranges from zero days rest if the pitcher throws three innings or less up to three days rest for anyone who pitches six or more innings.
That can create quite the problem for coaches trying to make sure they have enough arms to withstand schedules that have been compacted by the bad weather.
Several teams have already cancelled some of their non-league games, conceding that they don't have enough open dates to play their full 20-game schedules. Others have tentatively placed them at the end of their schedule to play if they are able to get in all their remaining league games without further postponements.
Marian's baseball team, which is in contention for both a Schuylkill League division championship and a top seed in the District 11Class A playoffs, entered this week scheduled to play 10 games in the span of 12 days. The Colts have already played two doubleheaders this season and have another one scheduled next week.
How rare is that?
"In almost 30 years of coaching high school baseball, we never had one true doubleheader. This year, we're going to play three," said Colt coach Jeff Nietz. "This year has been crazy.
"Most seasons you could get by primarily using two or three pitchers. This year, we've already used five or six different starters and we'll probably end up using as many as seven or eight different kids on the mound."
Marian isn't the only team whose pitching staff has felt the crunch, however.
Lehighton was scheduled to play five games in five days this week and then slated to play another five games in five days next week. Northwestern has had a stretch of seven games in nine days, Tamaqua had a span where it played five games in five days, and Panther Valley had a stretch of eight games in nine days.
"This has been a very unusual spring," said Lehighton coach Brian Polaha. "Because of that, we have had to do some unusual things, especially as far as our pitching is concerned.
"The first thing is that we have had to use six different pitchers so far, which is definitely more then we had planned on using heading into the season. The second thing is that it has made it almost impossible to plan our rotation at the beginning of the week. When you have five games in five days, every game is dependent on the previous game.
"If you have a starter knocked out early, it could change the entire pitching plan for the week. That's why we went into this week just taking it one game at a time. We didn't even know who was pitching the second game of our doubleheader with East Stroudsburg North on Wednesday until the first game was over."
For teams like Marian, Lehighton, Pleasant Valley and Northern Lehigh, who are are in tight races for division championships or league playoff berths, having multiple games in a short span of days could impact playoff hopes.
"You're always going to have weeks during a typical season where you have a couple of tough games and the teams your playing have easier weeks," said Nietz. "So you wind up getting both teams' No. 1 starter and you have to decide who to throw your No. 1 against and who to throw your No. 2 or No. 3 guy against.
"But this year, you can be playing a team that you might be better than, only you're pitching your No. 4 or No. 5 starter and they are going with their ace. That can be a great equalizer,"
Polaha added, "Pitching matchups are always huge in high school baseball, but this year they are even more crucial. You definitely need some pitching depth to win a league championship this year. Because no team will be able to rely on one or two pitchers to carry them. You are going to need contributions from four, five or even six pitchers during the course of this season."