USA TODAY International Edition

High pitch counts raise concerns

- Paul Myerberg

No stranger to triple- digit pitch counts, Stanford senior Quinn Mathews had thrown at least 100 in 15 of his 16 starts this year before taking the mound with the Cardinal facing postseason eliminatio­n against Texas in last week’s College World Series super regional.

Mathews would cross that century mark with room to spare, finishing with a whopping 156 pitches in a completega­me win against the Longhorns that has reignited the well- worn debate over pitch counts and high- volume usage during college baseball’s postseason.

No MLB pitcher has thrown that many pitches in a game since former Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, a knucklebal­ler, had 169 against the Milwaukee Brewers on June 5, 1997. The season high for pitches in 2023 is 119 by Rich Hill of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who is one of just four to crack 115 pitches amid the league’s cautious approach to starting pitchers and broader shift toward specialty relievers.

“Before people pass judgment, they don’t know what we know,” said Stanford coach David Esquer.

While Mathews exceeded his normal pitch count, “we took into account that he wasn’t cranking off a majority of sliders and fastballs,” Esquer said. “He was probably throwing a majority of changeups, and we thought that lowered the stress of the pitch count.”

Mathews wasn’t the only pitcher pushing limits in the NCAA Tournament. Southern Mississipp­i’s Tanner Hall threw 123 in the first game of the Golden Eagles’ regional against Samford, a 4- 2 loss, then came back to start and throw 30 pitches in a must- win game against Pennsylvan­ia three days later. Johns Hopkins’s Gabriel Romano threw 164 pitches in the second game of the Division III national championsh­ip round against Lynchburg.

As baseball adopts increasing­ly mindful measures to protect young pitchers, performanc­es by Mathews and other World Series starters have raised questions about the long- term impact of leaving it all on the field during postseason play.

“To the critics out there, I’m just appreciati­ve of them, honestly, that they’re willing to put the time and energy to write stuff about me and talk about me and do all that,” Mathews said Thursday. “I’m blessed that they care about my well- being and my health.”

The Cardinal won 8- 3 behind Matthews in what could have been his final college game. They then beat Texas the following day to reach the College World Series and opened play in Omaha, Nebraska, on Saturday with a 3- 2 loss to Wake Forest. Stanford faces LSU on Monday ( 2 EDT, ESPN) in an eliminatio­n game, and Mathews might get the start.

According to a 2018 study published in the Orthopaedi­c Journal of Sports Medicine, the majority of shoulder and elbow injuries among younger pitchers are a result of overuse, with risk factors including a “lack of adherence to recommende­d pitch counts, year- round pitching, rotator cuff weakness, kinetic chain deficits, scapular dyskinesis, altered shoulder rotation, and pitching with arm pain and fatigue.”

While the sport remains mindful of the possible strain on younger arms, multiple factors at play at this point of college season bring nuance to a debate that is anything but cut and dry.

“It’s a complicate­d issue,” said Aaron Fitt, the co- editor and national writer for D1Baseball. com. “But I also think it’s not as simple as ‘ higher pitch counts are dangerous.’ I happen to think coming back on short rest is more of an issue than a higher pitch count day.”

For one, college pitchers have been stretched out across the regular season and, like their MLB counterpar­ts, will begin to go deeper and deeper into starts as the schedule becomes more compacted and stakes are higher moving into conference tournament­s and the College World Series.

“I think everybody’s situation is different,” said former LSU and MLB pitcher Ben McDonald, who is covering the World Series for ESPN. “Now, can you do it all year round? No, that wouldn’t be a good idea. But once or twice in a playoff situation, I don’t necessaril­y have a problem with that.”

McDonald was noted for his workload at LSU with multiple instances of pitching a complete game and then being summoned from the bullpen the following day. His college career included a 16- month stint where he threw 350 innings as part of his time with the Tigers and also the U. S. Olympic team. McDonald was the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft in 1989 and was forced into retirement after nine MLB seasons due to a torn rotator cuff.

College starters also operate on a different off- day and recovery plan than MLB pitchers. MLB teams will almost universall­y use a five- day rotation, with starters taking the mound every fifth game; that means at least one pitcher will make multiple starts in a one- week span.

College teams rely on a seven- day rotation, however, giving starters one full week to physically recover between starts.

“I think college coaches as a whole are doing a wonderful job of taking care of arms,” McDonald said.

But when it comes to the seemingly annual hand wringing over high postseason usage, “I think it’s people that, honestly, are not aware of what’s going on,” he added.

Then there’s the CWS stage and the chance to play for the national championsh­ip. In the same way an MLB team’s ace will operate on shorter rest during the postseason, college teams will lean on their best arms to close out a series or avoid eliminatio­n.

Coaches and pitchers continue to confront the question: Is the increased possibilit­y of injury stemming from higher pitch counts or usage worth the potential payoff? In almost every case – regardless of whether the player is a high- value draft target or, like Mathews, a 19th- round pick in the MLB draft last season who sits somewhere in the second or third tier of prospects – teams and pitchers are opting to leave it all on the field.

“Look, it’s the pinnacle,” McDonald said. “It’s the reason why you do two- adays. It’s the reason you go to college. It’s the reason why you work so hard, to have the chance to go to Omaha and win a national championsh­ip. You never know when you’ll get another chance to do it.”

 ?? JOSIE LEPE/ AP ?? Stanford senior Quinn Mathews has thrown 100 pitches in 16 of 17 2023 starts.
JOSIE LEPE/ AP Stanford senior Quinn Mathews has thrown 100 pitches in 16 of 17 2023 starts.

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