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Prep baseball preview: Small schools pinched by pitch counts

Steve Kuchera / Duluth Denfeld's Jantzen Levy delivers a pitch during a game against Hermantown last week at Wade Stadium. A new rule this season limits pitch counts for pitchers.1 / 2
Steve Kuchera / Hermantown's Jesse Jacques delivers a pitch during a game against Duluth Denfeld last week at Wade Stadium. A new rule this season limits pitch counts for pitchers. 2 / 2

A return to more seasonal weather this week prompted myriad athletic postponements across the Northland.

For prep baseball teams, especially small-school ones, those could become cancellations.

New pitch-count restrictions instituted by the Minnesota State High School League place an emphasis on pitching depth, and a shortage of arms will make navigating condensed spring schedules even trickier. So when Tuesday's slop forced Silver Bay and Moose Lake-Willow River to call off their baseball game, the search for a makeup date proved more elusive than a Joe Mauer extra-base hit.

"We're trying to figure out where can we get a game where we think we have enough pitchers, and really it got down to only one day we could make it up," Mariners coach Ward Wallin said.

Silver Bay has 28 players in grades 7-12, more than "we've had in years," Wallin said. Nonetheless, he scheduled fewer than the allotted 20 games. Wallin wasn't sure he'd have enough pitching. April showers don't just bring May flowers; they spawn four- and five-game weeks.

The policy basics:

• 1-30 pitches: one day of rest

• 31-50: two days

• 51-75: three days

• 76-105: four days

The daily max is 105 pitches, which bumps to 115 for section playoffs. Days of rest are measured by the calendar, not 24-hour periods. As the high school league notes, "if a player throws 55 pitches on Monday, they are not able to pitch on either Tuesday or Wednesday."

Larger schools are better equipped to manage the rules. Duluth Denfeld coach Cal Fougner has 18 players, both varsity and JV, he trusts on the mound. Among smaller programs, even cutting that number in half might be generous.

"What hurts in the small schools are some of these teams that have 14, 16 kids in their entire program," Ely coach Frank Ivancich said. "They're the ones who, possibly in a week where they have three games, are going to make a phone call on a Thursday or Friday and say, 'Hey, coach, I don't have enough pitchers to come up and play you seven innings.' "

Wallin said games featuring "watered-down" pitching are inevitable. The alternative — forfeits — might also be unavoidable. Long-term, coaches say the key will be developing hurlers. The more options, the better. As Virginia coach Brian Skadsem said in a season-preview email: "Everyone has to prove they can't pitch."

As with any change, there are positives and negatives. It's hard to criticize a plan aimed at protecting student-athletes, but some worry the 105 cutoff will prove oppressive. Locally, coaches say overuse is scant. Two years ago, the News Tribune examined the issue, and the highest pitch count found was 141. A big number, but it's far from Old Hoss Radbourn territory.

And it was an outlier. Most coaches pulled the plug at about 115, unless it was early in the spring when a more cautious approach pervaded.

"It's to protect these kids, and I completely understand that," Cherry coach Brian Kemp said. "I feel that the people I know pretty much did this anyway."

Kemp has a young club. The Tigers have talent, including on the mound, but it's untested against varsity competition. Kemp has a seventh-grader, a terrific ballplayer, who he wouldn't hesitate to put anywhere on the field. But pitching is a different beast. No coach wants to put their players in a position to fail.

"He's going to be a hell of a pitcher one day, but it's tough for me to trot out a seventh- or eighth-grader to pitch against 11th- and 12th-graders," Kemp said.

Violations of the policy will result in coaches being disciplined. A first offense yields a simple reminder, while a fourth offense equals a four-game suspension. On game days, both teams designate a tracker, who compare totals after each half-inning. The home team has the final say, and coaches have 24 hours to enter pitch tallies onto the MSHSL website.

Of special interest will be the postseason. En route to the Section 7A title last spring, Ely played six games in nine days, including three in three days. The situation was even worse for runner-up South Ridge, which had eight games in nine days. The Panthers played twice on a Tuesday, and two more times on Thursday.

Under the current rules, they might have had to roll out a pitching machine. No longer can an ace throw 100-plus pitches in the semifinals and come back a couple days later to record a save — or two.

Silver Bay's Wallin thought the MSHSL's old policy, with merely a limit on innings, was too lenient. The new one, he fears, could go too far. His Mariners, playing fewer games than normal, already have felt the pinch.

"The previous rule was way too liberal, and I think they needed to make a change. So you went from way too liberal to really, really restrictive," Wallin said, while commending the high school league for doing a "great job" administering the policy and communicating with coaches.

Around the area

A year ago, Proctor in Class AA and Ely in A advanced to the state tournament. While both have holes to fill, excellent building blocks are in place. For the Rails, the News Tribune's 2016 All-Area Player of the Year, senior John Aase (.397 batting average, five homers, 28 RBIs, 7-3 pitching record, 2.15 ERA last season), is back. The Timberwolves retool around junior Gage Merhar (.400, 26 RBIs).

South Ridge, with seniors Christian Houle (.420, 30 RBIs), Mark Lisic (.396, 26 RBIs) and Vincent Wood (5-1, 1.97 ERA), could challenge Ely in Section 7A. Likewise for Deer River, which has seven starters back from its 2015 section championship team. That includes senior Jeffrey Moore (.370).

• Duluth East opened 12-0 last spring and finished 19-4. Among the Greyhounds' returners is senior Sam Laakso (5-2, 1.96 ERA).

• In Section 7AAA, Hibbing fell a game shy of state, and should be strong again. Senior Travis Carruth (6-2, 1.12 ERA) no-hit Orono on Apr. 14 for the 4-1 Bluejackets.