Against Douglas County on April 22, the Boulder baseball team sent Luke Pemberton to the mound as the Panthers’ starting pitcher.
Pemberton, who hadn’t pitched all season, suddenly found himself debuting against the No. 2-ranked team in the state. The junior fought off the enormity of the situation, made it through 1 1/3 scoreless innings and ended up earning the win at the end of a 13-10 victory.
At first glance it seems a peculiar decision to risk breaking in an unproven arm in such a big game, one with major RPI implications and momentum-generating potential down the home stretch of the season. But Pemberton’s high-importance start was a microcosm of the challenges facing prep baseball staffs now that an unusual number of reschedules have stacked up schedules across Colorado with roughly two weeks left in the season.
Most teams’ primary concern down the home stretch: Who is available to pitch today?
“We’re all in the same boat and we’re all on equal ground,” Panthers head coach Jack Taylor said. “We’re asking each guy to go out there and be our best pitcher, even though the kid may be your three or four, or in some cases your five or six. When you and all the other teams are throwing your third, fourth and fifth guy more often, it kind of equals out, too. The weather is the wild card in all this and it changes the order of what you’re doing each week and how you manage your rest days and pitch counts.”
Colorado’s weather causes problems for its prep teams each spring but this year’s cancellations have been a bigger issue than normal, particularly since baseball extended the schedule to 23 games starting in 2019. Most Class 5A and 4A teams have between five and eight games left to play before the final day of the regular season on May 14. Some of the more unfortunate teams have between eight to 10 games remaining.
Beginning with the 2016 season, the Colorado High School Activities Association instituted pitch count rules for player health and safety. Put simply, those rules stipulate that a varsity pitcher must rest zero days if he throws between 1-35 pitches in a game, one day for 36-60 pitches, two days for 61-85 pitches and three days for between 86-110 pitches.
Inclement weather, other unforeseen events cancelling school and after-school activities, flight cancellations and busing logistics have created a nightmare scenario for the Monarch Coyotes, who have been able to play only 13 games. That leaves a seemingly impossible 10 games for the Coyotes to play, and copious innings for their pitching staff to fill.
“We’ve had nine cancellations this year and we’ve played one home game,” Monarch head coach Scott Weiss said. “With our schedule and all the pitch count rules, it’s going to be tough on our pitching. It’s been quite a year.”
The situation Colorado weather has presented for the final weeks of the season has some upside to go with the obvious downside of teams’ scrambling to simply complete their schedules. At the end of the day, the games are the most fun part of playing spring baseball and sometimes having a bunch of them back-to-back-to-back is a welcome challenge to players.
“I feel pretty comfortable,” Taylor said. “Last week we had four games in four days and we went 3-1. These kids play a lot of games, multiple games a day, day after day, in the summer. As long as we can set up our pitching, not overwork guys, have quality at-bats and play well, that will all add up to winning. If that stuff doesn’t line up, it can look like, ‘Man, we look like we’ve played three, four, five days in a row.’ But even though practice is crucial and not having as many practices isn’t ideal for our development, I think the boys also like playing a bunch of games in a row to close out the season.”
Tuesday’s game between Skyline and Silver Creek, which was cancelled because of overnight rain and snow, is a perfect example of two teams on opposite sides of the same problem. The most recent cancellation left Skyline with eight games remaining, while Silver Creek has been one of the lucky teams this spring and only has five left.
While the next two weeks will be business as usual for Silver Creek – weather permitting, of course – the Skyline Falcons will have to bring up pitchers from their junior varsity level, which has seen its own schedule decimated like other lower-level programs across the state, just to eat up innings.
“My JV team has played four games,” Skyline head coach Travis Schlagel said. “I feel terrible for those guys but there’s only so much that can be done. But I guess on the bright side, some of those guys are going to have to pitch some innings for our varsity team to get us through the next couple weeks.”
Silver Creek head coach Brad Steward said, “Mother Nature was kind to us. Early on, we were battling our reschedules like everyone else because of the big snow storms. But we’ve been really lucky, and it really helped that we played a few games out in Las Vegas so we knew we were going to get those games in. We’ll still only end up with about three games next week, so we’ll be able to throw our guys when we want and hopefully finish with a nice Thursday and Saturday week to finish up.”
Prep baseball teams in Colorado, good luck.