When the draw for the Maryland 3A state tournament was released last year, Adam Leader surveyed the field and realized he was going to have to take some risks with his Reservoir squad. The Gators coach knew he had the talent, especially on the mound in South Carolina recruit Cody Morris, to make a run deep in the tournament. The question was how would he manage that pitching?
He could start his top pitcher in the opening game of the playoffs in order to get as much out of him as possible. Or he could play a matchups game by lining up his ace to face the toughest possible competition in later rounds.
Coaches across Maryland and Virginia are currently weighing this dilemma of how to deploy their pitching staffs for their state tournaments. They want to maximize performance for the deepest possible run while working within the constraints of innings limits. They also don’t want to be left regretting their calculated decisions.
“It’s always a tough decision because you don’t want to lose with your ace on the bench. . . . If we lose in the first round just because whatever happens and my ace is sitting on the sideline, that’s kind of a bummer,” Leader said. “If you lose and your ace goes, at least you can say I threw who I should have thrown and we got beat.”
Pitching regulations in Maryland and Virginia allow players to pitch a maximum of 14 innings over seven days, with other stipulations for how quickly someone can pitch again after throwing a certain number of innings. Coaches said those rules usually don’t have too much of an impact on the structure of pitching staffs based on playoff schedule dates. Maryland teams will play no more than three times in a five-day span, and in its run to the Virginia 6A championship game last spring, Chantilly didn’t play on consecutive days until the state semifinals and finals.
An extra-inning game or a rainout can change everything, though. If a team needs a pitcher to go more than seven innings in an early-round game, it cuts into his availability for a later-round matchup. A sudden thunderstorm could cut a game short and a pitcher might not be available for the continuation of the suspended game.
Everything is under consideration. When Leader saw that Reservoir’s region quarterfinal game would be against Wilde Lake, a team the Gators had handled with relative ease twice during the regular season, and that undefeated Atholton could be looming in the region semifinals, he decided to start his No. 2 starter, Jack Barry, over Morris.
The gamble paid off, as Reservoir beat Wilde Lake and Morris three-hit Atholton to propel the Gators into the region championship game. Less than a week later, Morris started Reservoir’s semifinal against Thomas Johnson, and Leader pulled the right-hander after the Gators built a commanding lead. Four days after that, Morris pitched a two-hitter in the title game.
Southern Coach Frank Hood, who coached the Bulldogs to the Maryland 2A state championship last season, said he tries to “backwards map” from the region championship game with his staff. Southern is the lone 2A school in Anne Arundel County, so Hood uses the regular season as a chance to see his players react to different situations against solid 4A teams. Then, he plans appropriately.
This season, Hood has three pitchers with ERAs under 2.25 in at least 20 innings in Truman Thomas, Jon Artale and Chris Blair . But despite the planning, Hood won’t hesitate to scrap his designs to keep his team’s title hopes alive.
“If you run into a situation where you got to blow that guy, you got to blow that guy early because it’s single elimination,” Hood said.
Not all coaches feel comfortable projecting future opponents in an unpredictable setting.
“We always seem to be in tight games in the playoffs,” said La Plata Coach John Childers, whose team lost in the Maryland 3A state semifinals last year. “I would say win the game in front of you. We’ll worry about the next game when we get there.”
Chantilly Coach Kevin Ford guided his Chargers squad to a Virginia 6A championship game appearance last season using this approach, even though it set up his third starter, Matt Hogle, to pitch in the Virginia 6A North region final. But Hogle responded with a four-hit shutout against McLean as Chantilly clinched its first region title in school history.
Ford said he could have been tempted to play the matchups in Chantilly’s opening-round game against Washington-Lee because the Chargers, a No. 2 seed, were projected to play top-seeded Osbourn Park in the next round. But fourth-seeded Annandale pulled off the upset, changing the dynamic bracket.
“Sometimes the most difficult game is the one in front of you, and you’re really rolling the dice to not go with the best,” Ford said.
No. 2 Gaithersburg, the defending Maryland 4A West region champions, has the luxury of pitching depth. The Trojans boast a pair of Division I recruits in left-hander Anthony Felitti (Virginia) and right-hander Nick Pantos (Maryland) at the top of their rotation. In Virginia, No. 4 Madison’s duo of left-handers Brian Eckert and Matt Favero has been unhittable at times this season.
“I have a lot of guys that I feel comfortable with, but to have two guys at the front there that are top line starters makes me sleep a little better at night,” Gaithersburg Coach Jeff Rabberman said. “But in the playoffs in the single elimination format, this is the hardest championship to win in high school sports — there’s no question in my mind — because anything can happen on any given day.”
The risk is always going to be there for teams, whether it’s losing with a rested ace sitting in the dugout or running out of pitching late in the postseason. In an unpredictable single-elimination tournament, one pitch or one swing can completely alter the course of a game and a season.
“It’s a bit of a gamble,” Ford said. “You never know what’s going to happen in a playoff game.”