Having a stable of talented pitchers is nice for any baseball team. But in the WPIAL, a team can ride one horse for almost the entire race through the finish line.
Whether the WPIAL brass acknowledges it or not, the baseball playoffs favor a team with an ace pitcher. Because of the way the league has scheduled the playoffs the past few years, a team with one strong horse is the best bet to finish first.
The WPIAL baseball committee meets today to determine playoff pairings and schedules. WPIAL executive director Tim O’Malley said it will be up to the committee to decide the playoff schedule, but hinted it likely won’t change from recent seasons.
Some coaches around the WPIAL have been critical of the league’s playoff structure. After all, what level of baseball allows a team to throw one pitcher in the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship of a tournament?
But that’s the way it is with the WPIAL. The league builds so much time in between those three rounds that one pitcher can pitch the entire game in a quarterfinal, semifinal and championship — and still have plenty of rest between starts.
In essence, the championship could go to the team with the best pitcher and not the best team.
“I’d favor not spreading it out so much because personally, I like it more when it shows the depth of a team,” said Mars coach Brian Hobaugh, whose team will be in the Class AAA playoffs.
Chartiers Valley coach Jim Jaskowski was even more outspoken about the setup.
“I hate it. It’s not baseball,” Jaskowski said. “I’m sure the [St. Louis] Cardinals would love to have Adam Wainwright pitch three of four games in the National League Championship Series, but they can’t.
“It’s a big frustration for me and it has nothing to do with my team, either. It’s just when you have one guy who can pitch three straight games on full rest, that’s not baseball. It’s not even a short rest. It’s a full rest. The championship doesn’t come down to who has the best team. It comes down to who has the best pitcher.”
If the WPIAL uses the same schedule format it has in recent years, the first round of the playoffs will be played Monday and the quarterfinals Wednesday. The semifinals wouldn’t be played until the following week and the championships the week after that (May 27-28).
O’Malley said concern about the weather is the main reason for the scheduling. He said the league likes to schedule the first round and quarterfinals next week, saving a few days at the end of the week in case it rains.
“The problem is that it’s weather driven,” O’Malley said. “Next week, we won’t want to pass up a good day weather-wise and not play.”
But some coaches wonder why the first round can’t be played next week, and the quarterfinals and semifinals the week of May 19, a few days apart. That way the same pitcher couldn’t pitch the quarterfinals and semifinals, but still could pitch in the championship. According to PIAA pitching rules, any pitcher who works more than five innings is required to have three days of rest.
In the past, a team has won WPIAL titles with an ace pitching the quarterfinal, semifinal and championship. Seneca Valley’s Matt Smith did it two years ago because he had six days off between the quarterfinal and semifinal, and then eight days off before the championship.
The knock against the WPIAL playoff scheduling is that it is nothing like the regular season, when teams are often scheduled for three section games in five days and one pitcher could work two games at the most, but it might be on three days of rest.
The PIAA playoffs aren’t scheduled like the WPIAL playoffs, either. It is possible for one pitcher to pitch the quarterfinal, semifinal and championship in the PIAA playoffs, but he would have to pitch twice in a row on three days of rest, which is tough for a high school pitcher.
But some WPIAL administrators and coaches point out that under the current system, the same pitcher can’t pitch the first round and the quarterfinals. But if a good team faces a bad team in the first round, it might not take much to win. Then that team can use its ace for the remainder of the playoffs.
“Speaking personally, if you don’t use your ace the first game, there may not be a second playoff game,” said longtime Riverside coach Dan Oliastro, whose team will be in the Class AA playoffs.
“Our feeling has always been that you’ve got to get past that first game. But if you get someone like [Blackhawk’s] Brendan McKay, it might be a done deal if the team does get past the first game.”
McKay is the star senior pitcher at Blackhawk who is 5-0 this season and has not allowed a run in 58 innings spanning two seasons, the fourth-longest streak in U.S. high school baseball history. Blackhawk figures to get one of the top seeds in Class AAA.
If Blackhawk uses one of its other pitchers against a weaker opponent in the first round and wins, the Cougars then become an overwhelming favorite because McKay could pitch the next three games with plenty of rest in between.
“It can be a difficult decision,” Blackhawk coach Bob Amalia said. “I’m not sure how we will do it. It depends on who we play in the first round and how we match up pitching-wise.
“I know years ago we played Ellwood City in the playoffs and we lost to [pitcher] Kevin Ricciuti. He pitched almost every game in the WPIAL playoffs and three of the four in the state playoffs. I didn’t like it too much back then, but I’m more used to it by now. You just have to go with whatever happens, accept it and go make the best of it.”
A year ago, Amalia used McKay in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs and McKay shut out Mars, 2-0. McKay couldn’t pitch in the quarterfinals two days later and Blackhawk lost to Hopewell, 13-3.
“Put it this way, I have a lot more confidence in our pitchers this year,” Amalia said. “Dante Parente is 5-0 and Cody Bain has pitched really well in relief. … Last year, I didn’t know if our No. 2 pitcher could beat Mars, so we threw Brendan. It’s a lot different this year. We’re 6-2 without Brendan pitching this year. Last year, we were 3-7 without him.”
There is a good chance McKay won’t pitch Blackhawk’s first-round game. If the Cougars win, they will hitch up to a thoroughbred and ride McKay the rest of the way. McKay is 27-1 for his career and hasn’t lost a game since his sophomore year.
“It would be big to have me pitch every game,” McKay said. “I think the team would love it and coach would love it. People might say it’s not fair, but things happen in baseball sometimes that you can’t control. You just have to roll with it.”
For more on high school sports, go to “Varsity Blog” at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.