Kent Emanuel looked like he was throwing batting practice.
It was the most important moment of North Carolina’s season — ninth inning of the regional finale — and the lefty ace had nothing in the tank.
Emanuel, just two days after throwing 124 pitches, had entered during the eighth with a 6-2 lead over Florida Atlantic. He escaped a jam and No. 1 UNC looked destined to advance.
Rather than turn to another bullpen arm, coach Mike Fox sent Emanuel back out for the ninth. And he fell apart.
First Emanuel gave up a home run. After he coaxed a flyout, he walked an Owl on four pitches. Then he gave up a single. He looked gassed.
Another walk. He fanned a batter for the second out, then — on his 51st pitch — yielded another walk to load the bases.
Finally, Fox pulled him.
The next Florida Atlantic batter hit a grand slam, the first stunning moment in a 13-inning thriller, which Carolina won, 12-11. It was the game of the year in college baseball. But it came with a stain — arm abuse.
College baseball continues to rise in popularity. More schools are making financial commitments. More high school prospects are choosing college over pro contracts. Bat regulations have eliminated home run derby and re-introduced small ball.
But one jam the sport can’t escape is coaches who push aces over the limit.
Major-league organizations obsess over pitch counts, fearful they might lose their million-dollar investments to the disabled list. For college coaches, the reward far exceeds the risk. So the best college pitchers are still doing things, especially in the postseason, that make pro scouts shudder.
Today at 2 p.m., Emanuel, a third-round pick of the Astros, returns to the mound against North Carolina State sophomore Carlos Rodon, who himself has endured a rigorous spring. Rodon has exceeded 128 pitches six times this season, including four times since May 11.
What’s the big deal? Consider that since the start of the 2012 MLB season, only Justin Verlander, Johan Santana and Clayton Kershaw have thrown 130 pitches in a game — and Santana hasn’t been healthy since. Consider that young arms — Rodon is 20, Emanuel 21 — are more vulnerable to overuse than a 30-year-old like Verlander.
Pitching overuse isn’t as bad as it used to be, according to ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson, an Omaha native and former All-American at Stanford. But it’s serious enough to necessitate bold new legislation.
Peterson favors a 120-pitch limit per outing and a mandatory rest period — at least three days — for starters coming off a big count.
“Get (renowned orthopedic surgeon) James Andrews on the phone and say, ‘OK, how do we do this?’” Peterson said. “‘What is the safest way to protect kids’ arms from 18-21 years old and still put together a program that’s realistic from a competitive standpoint?’
“I have a feeling that’s about an hour conversation and it’s solved.”
Peterson speaks from experience. In the dark ages of pitching overuse, he was Exhibit A. As a freshman in 1995, he threw 10 complete games, including three in a postseason span of eight days.
When you’re tired, Peterson said, your mechanics break down. Your body compensates in unhealthy ways. You don’t feel the impact that night or the next morning. You might not even feel it the next year. But “it’s how it affects you down the road. Your body’s just not built to do that.”
Peterson made his major-league debut in ’99, but three surgeries ruined his career. “I was just a nightmare by the time I was done.”
Fox, like most coaches, says pitch counts are overrated. And new rules aren’t necessary.
“I think there are college coaches throughout the country who know what they’re doing and have the best interests of their players at heart,” Fox said Friday.
Said N.C. State coach Elliott Avent: “I don’t think any coach is going to put a kid out there in jeopardy no matter what’s on the line.”
Pitch count is only one variable in deciding whether to pull a pitcher, Avent said. Others include physical size of the pitcher, the quality of his mechanics, the air temperature, the way the game unfolds. Is the pitcher constantly fighting out of stressful jams? Or is he rolling along 1-2-3? UCLA coach John Savage says you have to use common sense.
Trouble is, common sense to one coach is poor judgment to another.
In 2001, a 5-foot-9 Hawaiian emerged as the face of Nebraska’s resurgence. Shane Komine was a baseball warrior. He threw 162 pitches in the 2001 super regional against Rice. In the CWS opener a week later, he threw 138. He later had arm problems as a professional.
College baseball history is littered with examples like Komine. In 2004, Cal State Fullerton ace Jason Windsor threw 145 pitches in the CWS opener, then 48 on four days rest, then 129 in the championship finale. Injuries sabotaged his pro career.
In 2009, in the 25-inning regional marathon between Texas and Boston College, the ‘Horns’ Austin Wood threw 169 pitches in 13 scoreless innings — the day after he threw 30 in relief. A fifth-round pick in that June’s draft, Wood had shoulder surgery the next year and is now out of baseball.
Did these pitchers ever complain about throwing too much? Of course not. Can we prove that a few long outings caused arm problems? Of course not. In fact, some baseball experts say coddling pitchers over the long haul creates more injuries than it prevents.
But we can all agree, Peterson said, that high pitch counts and abnormally short rest lead to fatigue. And fatigue leads to injury.
Peterson understands why coaches oppose regulations. But a pitch limit, he says, would protect them from scrutiny.
“Then they don’t have to deal with it,” he said. “Nobody’s coming back to them and saying, why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that? They can say, you know what, that’s the rule. I had no choice.”
Here are just a few obstacles in persuading coaches: No siren goes off when a pitcher has reached the point of overuse. After an injury, there’s no way to know when damage occurred. And since most injuries occur in pro ball, college coaches typically don’t face the consequences anyway.
Creighton coach Ed Servais sees both sides of the argument. He doesn’t want new rules taking control from coaches. Yet he recognizes that some coaches go too far.
“The pressure to win has filtered from football to basketball and it’s finally reached baseball,” Servais says. “Guys are making good salaries now and (Omaha) is where they want to get. They’re going to do almost anything in their power to do it.
“Don’t kid yourself. That pressure is there. Sometimes you’re willing to do what you gotta do.”
Put yourself in the dugout. You’re up by one run and three outs from giving your team and your fans the best baseball memory of their lives — a trip to Omaha. Do you send your ace back to the mound at 130 pitches, even though it might increase by a few percent his long-range injury risk? Or do you call on some freshman reliever who might tremble in the moment?
I know what I’d do. I’d grab my ace and say, “Can you give me one more inning?” No competitor in his right mind would say otherwise.
And that’s the best argument of all for a pitch count limit.
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