With pitch-count limits, managers are challenged to have the right pitcher ready at the right time
By CHUCK WILLIAMS
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — It is as much about math as it is about baseball.
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If you want to advance in the Little League World Series, you better know how to count.
Just ask Columbus Northern Little League pitching coach Donnie Coulter what is easier, mastering the Little League pitch-count rules or calculus.
“Calculus,” Coulter said without hesitation.
Manager Randy Morris readily agreed with a nod of the head and a smile.
Morris could smile late Saturday afternoon because his team passed its first test with a 6-2 win over Hawaii.
This tournament — and the world championship that goes with it — is going to come down to pitching. And it is also going to come down to how the managers do the math that has to be done to have the right pitcher ready at the right time.
“They should have upped our pay when they put the pitch count in,” joked Morris, a volunteer, as are all Little League coaches.
The rules are complicated and critical.
If a pitcher throws 20 or fewer pitches in a game, he can come back the next day with no rest required.
Throw 21-35 pitches, and you have to take a day off from the mound. Throw 36-50 pitches, and it’s two days rest. Toss 51-65 pitches, and it’s three days rest.
Do what Northern starter and ace Jacob Pate did Saturday, go four innings and throw 86 pitches, and it’s four days off.
The rules were put in place in 2007, the year after Northern won the Little League World Series.
The rules are there for a reason — protect young arms.
That’s a good thing.
But like all rules, people try and figure ways to make them work in their favor. Some coaches will throw pitchers until they hit the magic number 20, then run another guy out there.
They play games within a game.
Morris didn’t do that Saturday. He played baseball like it was designed to be played. He put his best pitcher on the hill and took his chances.
Pate wasn’t at his best. He lacked control early and finished with four walks and two hit batters.
“Jacob struggled all game,” Morris said. “But he battled his way through it.”
A lot of the battle was in the first inning, when Pate threw an abnormally high 40 pitches and allowed two runs.
If you had told Pate before the game, when he admitted he was a little nervous, he would use up almost half of his pitch limit in the first inning, he would not have believed you.
“I wouldn’t think something like that could happen,” Pate said.
And Northern survived it.
Part of the reason is Morris didn’t panic. He didn’t yank Pate after 20 pitches to save him for another day.
Morris tried to win the game he was playing.
Earlier in the day, New Jersey manager Paul Deceglie made a quick hook in the first inning after Great Lakes scored two runs. He took out his starter and brought in another pitcher. It opened the floodgates to an eight-run inning.
He appeared to be playing pitch-count lottery and lost.
Now, the Toms River, N.J., team finds itself in the losers bracket and a tough spot.
Northern is in the winners bracket, in part because Morris didn’t play pitch-count lottery.
They are also there because of Troy Gilliland. He came on in relief of Pate and was crafty and effective.
And, because it won, Northern has a day off. Since Gilliland didn’t throw more than 35 pitches, he will be available for the maximum Monday night, when the Georgia state champs play Hamilton, Ohio, out of the Great Lakes region.
Kobie Buglioli, Blake Hicks and Brandon Pugh are also available to pitch.
Win Monday, and Northern gets another off day.
And another day to factor into pitch-count math.
If you want to win this thing, you better be a little lucky — and pretty good at math.
Chuck Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org