Commentary

Tourneys bring pitch count dilemma

Originally Published: June 12, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

In the opening game of the 2006 College World Series championship series, North Carolina ace Andrew Miller had just given up a two-run homer to Oregon State's Cole Gillespie when heavy rain started pouring on Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb.

After a one-hour, 11-minute rain delay, Tar Heels coach Mike Fox made a difficult decision and pulled Miller from the game.

Miller, who had been the No. 6 pick in the 2006 Major League Baseball draft by the Detroit Tigers a few weeks earlier, had thrown only 77 pitches. But Fox decided Miller had waited too long to start pitching again.

[+] EnlargeAlex White
Tim Steadman/Icon SMIWill Alex White be used as much in this year's CWS as in 2008 now that he's been drafted?

"Andrew about choked me in the tunnel," Fox said.

The Tar Heels won the game 4-3 when first baseman Chad Flack scored on a passed ball in the eighth inning. The Beavers rallied to win the next two games and a national championship, preventing the Tar Heels from becoming the first ACC team to win the CWS since 1955.

Fox's difficult choice illustrates the dilemma college baseball coaches will face over the next 12 days of the CWS. The eight-team, double-elimination tournament can tax a team's pitching staff, especially if coaches don't make the right decisions.

"It's more difficult, but you can out-think yourself, too," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "If you start to over-manage, you throw the kids off pretty quickly without knowing it. If you let the kids sense that you're expecting something from them that you didn't get from them during the regular season, they'll lose their confidence. They have to see the consistency in the logic, or they sense something is wrong. It doesn't take long for one domino to fall."

Fox, who has led North Carolina to the CWS in each of the past four seasons, was second-guessed last year for using Tar Heels starter Alex White in the bullpen during three games in Omaha. White -- who was the No. 15 pick in Tuesday night's MLB draft by the Cleveland Indians -- started the 2008 CWS opener against LSU, giving up four hits and three earned runs in seven innings of an 8-4 victory over the Tigers.

After throwing 107 pitches against LSU, White came out of the bullpen five days later and pitched the last two innings of a 7-3 win over LSU. The next day, White pitched the last 2 2/3 innings against Fresno State, earning a win in a 4-3 victory. White returned to the mound against the Bulldogs the next day, allowing two runs in 1 2/3 innings of a 6-1 loss that knocked the Tar Heels out of the CWS.

White threw 188 pitches in four games at the '08 CWS.

"He didn't think it was taxing him too much, but I got criticized for it," Fox said. "He was comfortable doing it."

Garrido knows all too well about being criticized for having his pitchers stay on the mound too long.

In the Longhorns' historic 25-inning victory over Boston College on May 30 in the Austin Regional, Texas reliever Austin Wood threw 169 pitches in 13 innings. He no-hit the Eagles for 12 1/3 innings, and even received a standing ovation from his opponents when he left the mound.

At some point during the seven-hour marathon, after Wood had reached the 100-pitch mark, he overheard Garrido talking to his assistants about taking him out of the game.

"Don't even think about taking me out of the game," Wood told his coaches.

[+] EnlargeAustin Wood
John Albright / Icon SMIAustin Wood was on the same page as his coach during his 13-inning stint against Boston College.

So Wood went back to the mound and pitched. And pitched. And pitched. And pitched.

Immediately, Wood was praised for his historic performance; he was named MVP of the Austin Regional and his size-7 gray and burnt orange hat was given a permanent place at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

But many baseball purists questioned Garrido's decision to allow Wood to pitch for so long, accusing him of abusing a pitcher and jeopardizing Wood's promising professional baseball career. Wood was a fifth-round choice of the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday.

"The boy wanted to stay in the game," Garrido said. "If he was in the military, he would be a hero and get the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor there is. All I know is the boy wanted to be a hero and lead his team. He wanted to do the job."

The Longhorns, the NCAA tournament's No. 1 national seed, open CWS play against Southern Mississippi on Sunday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

Wood said he'd be willing to do it all over again if it would help the Longhorns win a national championship.

"I was just out there having a blast and having the time of my life," Wood said. "If I felt like I was putting myself in jeopardy, I would have taken care of it. I was very surprised and pretty upset that the coaches were taking heat for it."

But Wood's outing in the Longhorns' historic victory shone even more light on one of college baseball's most controversial topics: high pitch counts. The debate figures to gain even more attention at the CWS, where coaches will try to put their teams in the best position to win while also protecting their pitchers, many of whom were drafted earlier this week by major league teams.

"Obviously, I'm not a win-at-all-costs kind of guy," Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said. "You have to be cautious about it. I'm going to be overly cautious about it, because we have such a young pitching staff."

But many college baseball coaches don't seem as concerned about high pitch counts.

According to Boyd's World, a Web site dedicated to college baseball, there were 281 games this season in which college players threw 130 pitches or more. In the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament alone, there were 29 games in which a player threw at least 120.

In fact, according to Boyd's World, four players had higher pitch counts in games this season than Wood's 169-pitch mark against Boston College. Oral Roberts' Drew Bowen threw 177 pitches against Arkansas, Florida A&M's Timo Schalch threw 174 pitches against North Carolina A&T, Grambling State's Manny Kumar threw 171 against Texas Southern and Coppin State's Kallen Fletcher threw 170 pitches in a seven-inning game against Delaware State.

Some coaches, such as Clemson's Jack Leggett, are reluctant to allow their pitchers to throw high pitch counts or even pitch on short rest, regardless of what's at stake for their teams.

If you start to over-manage, you throw the kids off pretty quickly without knowing it. It doesn't take long for one domino to fall.

-- Texas coach Augie Garrido on managing pitch counts

"I've got a different feel for it," said Leggett, whose Tigers were eliminated from the NCAA tournament by Arizona State in a super regional. "I'm not going to judge anybody, but we know what our kids' limits are, and we're going to take care of their arms."

Louisville pitching coach Roger Williams, who helped lead the 2007 Louisville and 2006 Georgia teams to the CWS, said a pitcher's long-term future has to remain a coach's top priority, even when so much is at stake in Omaha.

"You obviously want to win the game, but first and foremost it's got to be about what's best for the kid, whether he really has a pro future or not," Williams said. "You don't want to put him in a situation where he'll subject himself to injury."

Fox said he doesn't like UNC's players to throw more than 130 pitches in a game. White threw 128 pitches in a 10-1 victory over East Carolina in the Chapel Hill Super Regional. Fox pulled his ace from the mound with one out in the ninth inning.

"Kids want to win and get competitive during the game, and coaches do as well," Fox said. "But I think you have to look beyond that one particular win. I don't think I could sleep at night if I thought I'd taxed a young man so much that I hurt his arm and put his future in jeopardy. I'm not sure I could live with that."

Fox said coaches have to be more cautious with pitchers who have already been drafted, so as to not jeopardize their pro careers. Arizona State coach Pat Murphy will weigh the same tough decisions with junior pitcher Mike Leake, a two-time Pac-10 pitcher of the year, who was the No. 8 choice in the draft by the Cincinnati Reds.

"I think you have to be careful with any young man, but if you know a kid has a chance to make a living at it, that has to be first and foremost in your mind," Fox said.

Despite being criticized since Wood's marathon outing against Boston College, Garrido still isn't convinced high pitch counts contribute to pitchers' arm injuries. In fact, he believes the low pitch counts major league teams have mandated in their minor league systems might be to blame.

"Major league baseball went down in pitch counts to 90 or 100," Garrido said. "They'll pull prospects from games as soon as they reach it. They went from four days' rest to five days' rest. You know what? They all have more sore arms and arm operations than ever before. I'm not saying that's what's wrong. I don't have the answer."

But if Wood suffers an arm injury down the road, Garrido certainly knows who will be blamed.

"I do recognize that if he gets a sore arm in the next 10 years, it will be because of that game," Garrido joked.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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