Managing a pitching staff, always a point of interest at the Southcentral Conference baseball tournament, has managed to get even more intriguing this year.
When the three-day tournament fires up today in Palmer, strict limits on pitch counts will leave coaches plotting countless possibilities.
Two teams from the tournament qualify for state. For one team, the path is straightforward — win the opening game today, the semifinal today and the championship Friday night.
Everybody else is left to scramble for second place.
Today’s first-round losers would have to play five games to nab second, today’s semifinal losers would have to play five to get second, and the loser of the championship game game must play four to get second.
“You could grind it out and make it to the consolation game, and you might be putting a guy on the mound who has never seen action at the varsity level, because potentially you’ll be playing your fifth game of the tournament,” Kenai coach Steve Nimcheski said.
The problem is most teams do not have enough seasoned pitchers to cover four or five games in a three-day period, and pitch count rules instituted this season assure nobody can pull off a Madison Bumgarner impersonation from the 2014 World Series.
“It definitely is kind of an unknown for all of us,” Homer coach Rich Sonnen said. “I’ve been back and forth every day deciding on a strategy.
“I’ll just have to take it one game at a time.”
Soldotna coach Rob Quelland said most high school pitchers will throw at least 15 or 16 pitches per inning.
Pitchers can throw up to 120 pitches in a day, but once they throw 56 pitches in a day, two days of rest are required, so that pitcher is most likely done for the tournament.
Quelland said it would be possible to bring that pitcher back in a game later that day until that pitcher got to 120 pitches for the day, but the coach added that such a move is really tough on an arm.
Nimcheski said such a strategy is a possibility, but not something a team can bank on, because if that pitcher can’t get loose for the second game, the strategy is nixed.
“You never want a guy to get loose and warmed up and then be shut down for a while,” Nimcheski said. “That’s the same reason major league pitchers don’t go back in the game after a long rain delay.
“First and foremost is safety and health.”
If a pitcher throws 31 to 55 pitches, in effect two or three innings, that pitcher must take a day of rest. Under 30 pitches requires no mandatory days of rest, but pitching two days in a row — even at one pitch per day — automatically requires a day of rest.
“It’s going to have a tremendous impact,” Quelland said of the pitch count. “You’re going to have to hope the starters go deep in the game, but if they are not on to start the game, you’re going to have to get them out of there quickly.”
Ratcheting up the difficulty of the math problem even another level is rain forecast for Palmer on at least Thursday and Friday.
The team with the best chance of skating through to state in three games is Wasilla. The Warriors have won the tournament for three straight seasons and finished 9-0 in conference this season.
“Wasilla is the only team that is dominant,” Quelland said. “I think everybody else has a shot at it, especially with the way the brackets are set up.”
Kenai is the top seed from the Southern Division, finishing league play at 7-3. The Kardinals play Palmer, No. 4 from the north, at 1 p.m. at Hermon Brothers Field.
Kenai invoked the mercy rule on Palmer, which was 1-9 in the league, in the regular season.
The mercy rule is a great way to save pitching, but Nimcheski said Kenai beat Palmer early in the season and the Moose have improved since then.
Kenai’s bats were quiet in closing the season with losses to Soldotna and Grace Christian.
“They did a lot of work this week, with double practices inside and outside,” Nimcheski said. “We thought the indoor batting cage was put away for the season, but we brought it back out.
“There will be guys in there until the moment they walk across the stage for graduation. Some are very disappointed with the way they finished the season.”
Nimcheski said the Kardinals had several nagging injuries by the close of the season, but those are healed now.
Another thing that has plagued Kenai all year is errors that have led to unearned runs.
In this tournament, mistakes will be doubly costly because they also make the pitchers throw more pitches.
“Teams have returned the favor, but that was then and this is now,” Nimcheski said. “We don’t expect that to keep happening, so at this tournament we need to tighten it up and help the pitcher out.”
The coach said a big improvement in the defense has been due to catcher Nick Beeson. Beeson was not slated to catch this season, but Nimcheski said the senior has kept improving as the season has progressed.
The Stars finished with a 6-4 mark in the league to earn the second seed out of the south. Soldotna opens with Houston, No. 3 from the north, at 10 a.m. at Palmer Senior.
SoHi played the Hawks, who finished 2-7 in the league, twice this season and won narrowly both times.
“Houston’s very competitive,” Quelland said. “They pitch well and they hit well.”
Quelland said many of the teams in the league are young and winning games will come down to the little things.
“For us, our losses came down to three things in the game that would have made it different,” the coach said. “Every team would probably say the same thing.”
Quelland said the Stars need consistency from the top four or five players in the order. He said that many times this year, one or two of those players have had big games while the others haven’t produced.
But the coach said the good news is he believes Soldotna has the pitching depth to play as many games as necessary.
“We’re confident in our pitching staff no matter how many games we have to play,” Quelland said. “We have six or seven kids that can pitch at this level.”
Homer snared the No. 3 seed in the south with a 5-5 mark. The Mariners face Colony, at 4-6 No. 2 from the north, at 1 p.m. at Palmer Senior.
Homer defeated Colony 7-6 in eight innings on Friday and Sonnen expects another battle.
Sonnen said a shoulder injury to Adam Brinster has hurt Homer’s pitching depth.
“As long as everyone throws strikes and makes the other team put the ball in play, we’ve got enough guys,” Sonnen said. “I have enough pitching unless there is one guy that ends up falling apart.”
Like Nimcheski, Sonnen also said the Mariners can’t afford to waste pitches on errors.
On offense, Sonnen said his team has been making contact and making the opposition’s defense work.
“Last weekend in the Valley, we only had a total of four strikeouts in two varsity games,” Sonnen said. “That’s good for us, because we’ve had double that in one game.
“The guys have been working hard. If we can avoid baserunning mistakes, we’ll be all right.”