The Yomiuri ShimbunA highly talented high school baseball pitcher could not take the mound but only watch from the bench with tears in his eyes as his team lost the game. It must have been painful to watch for fans of high school baseball.
In the Iwate prefectural final for the National High School Baseball Championship, prefecture-run Ofunato High School, playing in the final without its ace pitcher Roki Sasaki, lost 12-2 to Hanamaki Higashi High School, losing an opportunity to take part in the national tournament at Koshien Stadium. The game ended without displays of Sasaki’s pitches, the fastest of which was recorded at 160 kph in a fourth-round game.
The manager said he decided to leave Sasaki on the bench to prevent an injury. Sasaki threw a combined total of 435 pitches in the four games he had thrown during the prefectural tournament, including 129 pitches in the semifinal, held on the previous day.
While expressing his gratitude for the manager’s concern, Sasaki, speaking from the heart, said, “I wish I could’ve pitched.” Both the manager, who had taken the unusual precaution, and Sasaki himself, who complied with the manager’s decision, must have suffered.
In the Iwate prefectural tournament, which included 66 teams, Ofunato played six games including the final within a span of 10 days. In high school baseball, where the burden tends to concentrate on one player — namely a pitcher — isn’t the schedule too tight?
The organizer of the tournament says there is a limited period for securing baseball stadiums and umpires. Another reason for the concentration of games is that they need to be held after end-of-term examinations, which take place in July. The schedules of fixtures from the quarterfinals onward tend to be tight nationwide.
Having the preliminary, prefectural tourneys start earlier and more time off between the rounds of games could reduce the risk of player injuries. In Hokkaido and Okinawa Prefecture, preliminary tourneys start earlier than in other prefectures. The organizers should consult with high schools and consider improving the scheduling of games.
In the national tournament held at Koshien Stadium, steps have been gradually taken to protect pitchers from shoulder injuries. In the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament held in spring last year, a tiebreak system for extra-inning games was introduced. If the game remains tied through 12 innings, from the 13th inning, each inning begins with runners on first and second base.
From the upcoming national summer tournament onward, there will be a day off between the semifinals and final. Will this be enough for pitchers to recover from exhaustion? If the tournament schedule is extended, accommodation expenses for the players and the students who come to cheer them on will increase. But the physical condition of players should be prioritized.
Discussions on introducing pitch limits have also started at the Japan High School Baseball Federation.
The discussion on the issue was triggered after the Niigata Prefecture High School Baseball Federation put forward the possibility of capping a pitcher’s pitches at 100 per game. Yet there are also strong voices opposing pitch limits among players and managers.
If the pitching is capped in a game, there will be such ill effects as batters making a pitcher throw as many pitches as possible by deliberately hitting fouls. Such a development would be disadvantageous to those teams that cannot secure more than one pitcher. Given this, the discussion is moving toward capping the combined pitches over multiple games.
A high school baseball federation panel is slated to reach a conclusion at the end of November. The panelists are urged to think hard to prevent heartbreak among high school baseball players, who put all their efforts into the summer tourney.