by Andrew Garda

When the 2017 baseball season kicked off for Montclair High School and Montclair Kimberley Academy, there was a new wrinkle the teams had to contend with. This season, the National Federation of State High School Associations has required each state under its purview to institute a pitching count rule regarding the most pitches a high school pitcher can throw. For the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and schools under its mandate, that means no pitcher can throw more than 110 pitches in a game (save to finish the batter they are facing when they reach the limit).

Luckily the local high school teams were ahead of the curve.

“We’ve never really stayed with guys ... more than 80, 85 pitches, so it’s not going to be a problem for us,” said MKA head coach Ralph Pacifico.

“Even before this pitch count came into effect, we never really overthrew our guys to even get close to that limit,” Mounties coach Ron Gavazzi said. “So there’s really not much change in that regard.”

Both teams have long been of a mind that it makes no sense to consistently push their pitchers too hard — if a starter is struggling and getting hit, it won’t help him to keep him out there and total up a lot of pitches. On another day, he might have better ball placement, speed or movement. There’s no sense in wearing his arm out.

So on a day like this past Saturday, Pacifico didn’t stick with his starter, Gerrard Corbo, who was struggling against West Essex’s hitters. He simply moved on to Chris Lewis, and moved Corbo to outfield.

That’s an advantage high school baseball has, and something that can make adjusting to this new rule far simpler. Corbo has good bat, and can play the field. So he can stay in the game when he isn’t pitching anymore. The same applies to Makhi Booker, the Mounties pitcher who can also play second base.

Overall, this rule is a good example of concern at the professional level trickling down to the youth sports level. For several years, there has been an increase in arm-related injuries, particularly one that result in “Tommy John” surgery.

Tommy John surgery is a procedure named for the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who in 1974 was the first to have it done. It treats a torn or ruptured ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), which is replaced by a tendon from another part of the body.

The procedure has become more common not just at the major league level, but in high school as well. According to a 2014 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, 15- to 19-year-olds accounted for 57 percent of Tommy John procedures in the United States from 2007 to 2011.

The numbers are only going up. So all levels of baseball have begun to take a harder look at how many pitchers are being used — with a special focus on kids in high school and even younger kids.

According to the NJSIAA rule, a pitcher can throw a maximum of 110 pitches in one game. If the pitcher reaches that limit while facing a batter, he can keep going until that batter is out, reaches base or the third out of the inning takes place.

If a pitcher reaches 110 pitches, he is required to rest for four calendar days at which point he can resume pitching. There is mandatory rest for shorter periods of time every 20 pitches before a player reaches 110.

For example, throwing between 51 and 70 pitches requires a minimum of two calendar days’ rest.

Other aspects of the rule are that no pitcher may pitch on more than three consecutive calendar days, throw more than 50 pitches on two consecutive days or exceed 140 pitches in a five-day calendar period.

In Booker’s outing last Wednesday, he threw 93 pitches, which means he couldn’t pitch again until this past Monday. Corbo lasted just two innings and some change on Saturday but threw 41 pitches, meaning he would need to rest one calendar day, also making him available for Monday.

As Pacifico said, the Cougars have ample arms to deal with a guy who can’t pitch for several days. The same is true for the Mounties and in both cases, their pitching staff can play the field as well, so it’s not as if the teams are robbed of their players entirely.

Other teams may be finding the rule harder to deal with, but for MHS and MKA, taking care of their players has always come first.