NCAA tournament coaches' dilemma: pitch counts

N.C. State, UNC face tough calls when starters exceed 100 pitches

Staff WriterJune 4, 2010 

Late in the showdown against Arizona State last June, with elimination from the College World Series on the line, North Carolina ace Alex White - who had only three days rest since throwing 131 pitches against the Sun Devils - asked coach Mike Fox over and over to put him into the game.

"Physically, he could have done it, and he probably would have been throwing 92, 93 [mph]," Fox, whose team lost that game 12-5, said earlier this week. "But in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'What's the most important thing here?' He's about to become a first-round draft pick ... and all it takes, sometimes - I've seen guys tear their [elbow] with one pitch. So is it worth the risk? Is it worth the risk? To me, at that time generally, I'm going to err on the side of caution, and I'm going to say no."

"I hate it. I hate being in that position."

But beginning with this weekend's NCAA regionals, both he - and N.C. State coach Elliott Avent - will be in similar positions yet again.

Whereas starting college pitchers usually enjoy a rotation of five or six days of rest during the regular season, the four-team, three-to-four-day, double-elimination regionals create more of a dilemma for coaches.

If a guy starts on Friday, will he be ready to come back in relief on Sunday? Or start Monday?

If there's a weather delay, how long until he can resume pitching?

And how many pitches are too many?

"There is no more 'next week,' and that's the thing that becomes a challenge," said Avent, whose third-seeded team plays College of Charleston in the Myrtle Beach regional today at 7 p.m. "You lose and you go home - and you want to do everything for your team to win. But not at the expense of your players."

One problem, said Will Carroll, sports injury expert for Baseball Prospectus, is there's no agreement among college baseball coaches about how many pitches is too many. "We have no system," he said.

According to Carroll, nobody has really studied pitch counts at the college level - so nobody knows for sure if too many (or too few) pitches between the ages of 18 and 22 leads to injuries later. The American Sports Medicine Institute, for example, did look at the effect of high pitch counts at the Little League level, which led to pitch limits a few years back.

And while the rest patterns are different for college and high school pitchers, Carroll said, their youth is a factor.

"It's not clear-cut on the number of pitches," he said. "It's a matter of fatigue and what you're doing to the arm."

Neither the NCAA nor the ACC puts limits on the number of pitches a player can throw or how much rest they should have between appearances, leaving it up to the individual schools and teams.

"As a general rule, I'd never take anybody at any level over 120 pitches," Carroll said.

Scott Forbes and Tom Holliday, the pitching coaches for UNC and State, agree, usually limiting pitching counts earlier in the season and building them up for ACC play - depending on weather conditions and a pitcher's age and body build.

But there have been instances where both schools exceeded 120 during this past regular season.

Tar Heels junior Matt Harvey, a likely first-round draft pick later this month who is scheduled to start on the mound against California in the Norman (Okla.) regional tonight at 8, threw 156 pitches in a complete-game victory at Clemson in April.

Fox was worried when the pitch count started creeping up.

"But I was feeling so good in that in the eighth inning, I went up to Coach Forbes and told him, 'I don't really even feel like I've thrown yet,' " Harvey said. "That's when the decision to keep me in was easy."

Meanwhile, Wolfpack junior Jake Buchanan, who will likely start tonight, pitched 101 innings this season (second most in the ACC), with two complete games, and he exceeded 130 pitches three times. But he, too, felt strong enough to last.

"For me, I think my best innings are after the fifth inning," Buchanan said. "I'm the kind who settles in and gets stronger as the game goes on. Going nine [innings] isn't that bad."

Actually, it can be the shorter stints during the postseason that lead to the biggest conundrums for coaches.

Last Friday in the ACC tournament, for example, Buchanan had thrown only 23 pitches in the first inning against Georgia Tech when the game was postponed. Buchanan wanted to return to the mound when play resumed the next morning, but Avent and Holliday wanted to give his arm more time to bounce back. Later that night, in State's second game of the day, against Clemson, the coaches opted to use Buchanan in relief. The Pack won, advancing to the title game.

"Jake probably could have pitched on Saturday morning and been fine," Avent said. "But you don't want to win at the possible expense of your pitcher. ... We gave it a lot of thought and made the right decision."

But there could be a whole lot more tough ones, beginning this weekend.

"There were times this season when Matt Harvey was begging me to go in a game Sunday ... when he just pitched Friday. Now, that, we're not going to do," Fox said. "But could we get into this regional and go to Monday and be right there on the brink, and Matt Harvey come to me and say, 'Coach, I can finish this game.' And I'm going to go back and look at the factors: He's getting ready to go in the first round [of the MLB draft], he threw 132 pitches on Friday, he's had two days rest.

"And I'm going to have to make a decision - and it's never going to be easy."

Staff writers Javier Serna and Chip Alexander contributed to this report.

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8999.

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