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It’s a delicate balancing act for high school baseball coaches: riding strong pitchers for as long as possible during games to win while keeping their arms healthy for the longer haul.

Also in play is creating staff depth, preparing pitchers properly, and finding the balance between overtraining and undertraining; throwing too much and risking injury, or underthrowing and not having command at tournament time.

Finding the right balance is essential, coaches say, to a successful season in a game that many observers say is 90 percent about the guy on the mound.

Especially at schools as small as those in DODDS Pacific, where enrollments can be as low as 150, arms are at a premium.

“The fewer arms you have, the more difficult it will be” to win, Yokota assistant coach Shannon Laliberte said.

With more pitchers, “you have the luxury of them not having to throw too many pitches,” he said. “With fewer pitchers, it’s difficult to maintain that balance and win at the same time.”

“That’s very important,” Kubasaki coach Randy Toor said, citing how Far East tournaments were cut this season to three days instead of four and teams cut to 14 players each to slash costs. “You have to have the arms ready to go.”

Teams in Japan and Korea practice up to five days a week, play a game or two during the week, then have as many as four games on a weekend, all in preparation for the Far East tournament in May.

Players may not pitch more than 17 innings at Far East. One pitch in an inning counts as an inning pitched. No more than nine innings in one day. Players may not pitch the day after going more than six innings or the next two days if they go more than seven innings.

Doing that in a three-day tournament “isn’t easy,” Yokota athletics director and Far East D-I tournament director Tim Pujol said.

Some teams have it good. Junior-laden Kubasaki, DODDS’ best hope for a Division I title with only one loss to high school competition, can call on juniors Tommy Warren and Angelo Bourdony and sophomore Renton Poole.

“We’re pretty lucky,” Toor said.

Yokota is also armed with veterans Leo Austin, last year’s Division II tournament MVP, plus Nate Sax and Kei DePontbriand.

But mostly, teams struggle to find a third experienced, reliable pitcher.

Osan and Zama might be primed for a run at a D-II title, but both are likely to rely on just a pair of pitchers: Tyler Harding and Kenny Mack Stewart for the Cougars and freshmen Keiyl Sasano and Keanu Cruz for the Trojans.

All coaches have some regimen their hurlers follow to build up strength, maintain control and not overthrow.

A survey revealed pitchers might begin the season by throwing 20 to 30 pitches per practice, then gradually increase, from windups and from the stretch, as the season progresses and the weather warms up.

“Proper throwing mechanics, stretching and strength training all contribute to building arm strength,” Edgren coach Brett Lehner said. “It’s important to remind players to throw within your ability. If a player does not follow that rule, then injury can occur.”

“Getting them to focus on balance and extending of the pitching arm is key,” said Osan assistant Dustin Remmenga. “Explaining and showing them how to generate power from the legs and getting them to understand is very important.”

During games, most coaches said they cap their pitchers at between 80 to 90 pitches. “I’ll ask how he feels and look at the number of balls and strikes from that point on,” Daegu coach Michael Downes said. Eighty is “a fairly good predictor as to when a pitcher starts to fall off the plate.”

“I usually go by committee,” Toor said. “Very few complete games at Kubasaki and if there is one, I try to keep it under 100 pitches.”

“There has to be clear communication while talking to pitchers about how their arm feels,” Lehner said. “The pitcher needs to be honest with the coach.”

Rest is also essential, Perry coach Frank Macias said.

“We will not let a pitcher pitch on back-to-back days unless he threw only 20-30 pitches on the first day. Then, he will only throw 40-50 the next day depending on how he feels.”

It’s tougher in the cold, such as at Misawa Air Base, where Edgren is usually bound indoors by residual snow, then practices and plays games in near-freezing conditions.

“It’s very important for all my players to take extra time to warm up to prevent injury,” Lehner said. “We do a lot of throwing before and during practice to eliminate sore arms.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.
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