For years, baseball has been commonly referred to as the “Thinking man’s game.”
With so much strategy riding behind every pitch, every at bat, those at the helm of a ball club certainly have to make their fair share of decisions throughout the course of a nine ― or in the case of high school, seven ― inning contest.
In 2020, the WPIAL decided to take the game’s aspect of intellect and up it a few notches, electing to have section contests for high school baseball take place in back-to-back days between the same two teams. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, high school managers had an entire year to sit and think out a plan. Last spring was, for many, an opportunity to test a few different ideas and find out what works.
“The first year was different just because we were so used to our two games against section opponents being a month apart,” Beaver manager Noah Medich told the Times earlier this week. “But now, I’ve learned to like it. It’s cool. It’s intense. It brings another level of intensity. It’s very baseball-like.””
As expected, each club has its own way of doing things when it comes to this “fun” but new challenge.
For some teams, it’s as simple as the top pitcher starting in the first game, and the second man in the rotation going the following day. Blackhawk’s Lou Wolber feels like this simple but stern strategy lets his group know that the first and only priority is the next game on the schedule.
“You can’t live for tomorrow,” Wolber told the Times earlier this week, “especially with the way things are now. You’ve got to hope for a sweep and if you don’t do that, you have to hope for at least a split. You don’t want to be swept. I can’t think about saving any guy for the next day because each win in section play is so important.”
Blackhawk’s section foe Beaver, on the other hand, goes about things in a bit of a different way.
Medich feels that in order to give his team its best chance to win, the player on the mound must be comfortable. Rather than organizing his rotation based on matchups or the ace going first, the Bobcats have a home starter (Garrett Pander) and a road starter (Jack Ray) for section battles. Their order might switch, but their routines won’t.
Neither Wolber nor Medich said they factor the opposition into their decision making. However, New Brighton skipper Mike Kirschner says there are times when he will.
“Based on where you are in the standings, if you’re facing a team with a really good pitcher that you might have trouble scoring runs on, you might rather just have your ace pitch the next day against their second-best guy,” Kirschner told the Times.
Kirschner believes that the area of pitching that’s really put to the test due to back-to-back section contests is bullpen strategy. As always, teams with pitching depth will have an advantage. But, unlike college and professional ball, pitch limits could prevent teams from using the same reliever twice in a series.
According to WPIAL rules, a pitcher can appear in back-to-back games only if he threw fewer than 25 pitches in the first contest. A total of 25 to 50 pitches require one day or rest, 51-75 pitches require two days and 75-100 require three days.
For clubs with a deep bullpen, this is no issue. For ones where pitching is thin, it means a bit of extra work.
“This year we have to look at the team, see what their strengths are and hopefully we can match up,” Wolber said. “Our goal is to throw somebody who doesn’t play into their strengths.”
For teams with starters who typically go long into ballgames there is always the tempting thought of using the next best arm up, if needed for only three outs. With his club hanging on to a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning on Tuesday against Blackhawk, Medich said there was some thought of bringing in Ray, who was slated to start Wednesday, to come in and close the door.
“There are cases where, if we really feel we needed to bring Jack in to help us try to get a win, especially against a good team, we’d do it,” Medich said. “You have to take what you can get.”
The idea of winning today and worrying about tomorrow when it arrives, seems to be the common theme throughout the Beaver Valley. A bad, two-day stretch could now be something that alters a season. The games mean a bit more, but going off of what the managers say, there is certainly a bit more pressure on the line.
For the players and coaches, that can certainly be stressful. For everyone else, it could be, as Medich put it, pretty “cool.”