By IAN WILSON
That back-to-school feeling can hit some people harder than others.
Classroom seating smacks several students with instant nostalgia, inspired by summer memories that fade faster than a farmer’s tan.
For collegiate baseball players, the return to classes can be a mixed bag. The promise of another school year and another season awaits, but the games that really matter won’t take place until autumn and winter bid adieu. In the meantime, the crack of the bat is replaced by the crack of the books.
Pitchers who have completed their senior season of baseball, and chased that with a final tour on the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) circuit, may suffer from phantom pain. They’re back at college or university to complete their education, but the baseball – at least the competitive version of it that they’re used to – has been amputated.
No longer eligible to play collegiate baseball, and passed over by the scouts, their pursuits have shifted from the athletic realm to the academic arena. That will soon be followed by the dreaded nine-to-fiveness of the real world.
The pitcher who once sought a way to soothe the pain in his arm now starts to miss the aches, which served as a badge of courage among his band of brothers.
FOR THE BOYS
Southpaw Taran Oulton is one of those pitchers.
At the start of the 2019 WCBL season, the Edmonton Prospects veteran proclaimed: “I’m ready to throw out my arm for the boys … I’m ready to throw as much as I can.”
Even after his senior season at William Woods University (WWU) – where he threw 1,241 pitches over 88.1 innings, including a 151-pitch, 10-inning effort on March 31st against Columbia College – Oulton did just that for the Prospects.
During 68.1 frames of work for Edmonton, the lefty punched out 57 batters and picked up a pair of complete game victories over the Brooks Bombers.
“I love it when they just want to send me back out there, even if I’m probably not supposed to, you know,” Oulton told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“It makes me feel like they have confidence in me … it gives me a boost, gives me adrenaline so I can get the job done.”
The adrenaline boost would eventually wear off.
With more than 150 innings under his belt – between his time with the Owls and the Prospects – by the time August rolled around, Oulton was worn out and he was unable to pitch in the WCBL postseason.
“My shoulder is done, so I decided to go south for school a little early,” said the Prospects Academy graduate shortly after the regular season came to an end.
Oulton is now working on completing his degree in marketing and advertising.
“I know that I was overused my last two years, but there was a reason for it. I’m all about winning, so if that’s what it takes then I’m okay with it,” he said.
“As for my career ending, I’m still processing it and I’m not at peace at all. I’m too competitive to be okay with having to quit because I’m no longer good enough.”
With one of their innings eaters on the shelf, the Prospects turned to another workhorse in the playoffs.
Right-handed hurler Hunter Boyd logged 74 innings during the WCBL regular season, including three complete games, on his way to a 5-2 record and a 2.43 earned run average (ERA). But he saved his best work for a postseason matchup against the Okotoks Dawgs. In a 10-inning, 143-pitch outing at RE/MAX Field on Aug. 9th, Boyd struck out 10 batters and outlasted four Dawgs pitchers during Edmonton’s only win of the playoffs.
“It was a fun game to be a part of,” conceded Justin Hammergren, who started on the mound for Okotoks that night.
“I let him know he threw a great game, because he did … it was a pretty cool thing to watch. Knowing him, I knew he was going for the long haul. He was going for it.”
Before arriving in Edmonton, the ace from Moses Lake, Washington displayed his stamina by pitching 87.1 innings for the College of Idaho. Three of his 13 appearances during his senior year with the Yotes were complete games of the nine-inning variety.
The Dawgs would go on to win the 2019 WCBL championship, but Boyd’s future is less certain.
“Played in my last baseball game tonight and that is tough to say for me,” said Boyd in an Instagram post after his playoff heroics.
“It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember … I definitely made memories that I won’t ever forget.”
GOING THE DISTANCE
Nick Garcia, meanwhile, pitched more regular season innings than anyone in the WCBL. Taking the hill for the Brooks Bombers, Garcia threw two complete games over the summer, including a shutout victory over the Fort McMurray Giants.
Like Oulton and Boyd, the native of Moreno Valley, California also took a start into extra innings this year. On April 13th, while pitching for Missouri Valley, the righthander gutted out an 11-inning, 134-pitch performance that resulted in a 3-2 triumph over Central Methodist University.
“I had the best game of my life … it was pretty wild,” said Garcia of the marathon outing.
“It was all my choice for the eleven innings. My coach just let me go out there and do what I do. I usually just pull myself out if I do feel anything.”
Added Garcia: “I didn’t feel anything until that last inning. I felt a little soreness and told my coach that he better start warming someone up, just in case. I was going to pull myself out if I did feel anything coming. That eleven innings, I just kept throwing myself out there. My coach knows I know how to worry about myself and take care of myself.”
Despite expressing no regrets about his extra-inning performance, the 6-foot-2 senior said letting a pitcher choose their own workload is not always ideal.
“I think the coach should be pulling out the player, even if he does want to go out there, because there are some guys out there that really don’t care how their arm feels … they just want to go out there and win,” said Garcia.
More than a month after his season with the Brooks Bombers came to a close, Garcia wants to keep going out there and winning, too.
“I just want to keep playing competitive baseball,” said Garcia, who attended a Pecos League tryout in Los Angeles on Sept. 13th and is anticipating a chance to work with one of their teams this winter.
“The tryout went great. So far, everything is going well.”
Taking nothing for granted, the 22-year-old has also set his sights on studying engineering at Cal State University, San Bernardino.
His family, who have seen him develop his baseball skills since he was a boy, are not ready to see him pack up his glove yet either.
“I have seen him throw his heart into baseball since he was seven years old,” said Garcia’s older sister, Sabrina De La Torre.
“He works extremely hard to try and be the best. Nick wants to further his baseball career and one day hopes to go pro and live out his dream … when he is playing baseball, he is living his dream.”
For Jaymon Cervantes, who led the WCBL in complete games in 2019 with four, he would have gladly pitched more this year.
“If we’re being honest, I don’t think I’ve pitched enough in my career, and by that I mean I love being out there and I love competing,” said the Tucson, Arizona native.
The righthander’s 71.1 innings in his senior campaign with the Minot State University (MSU) Beavers ended in May with a seven-inning win against Wayne State College, followed by a seven-inning victory over St. Cloud State on just one day’s rest. The performances helped lead the Beavers to the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) championship game (which MSU ultimately lost to Augustana). Cervantes was praised for his gritty play by some observers, while others criticized the coaching staff’s decision to let him pitch on short rest and risk injuring his arm.
“I’d do that time and time again if my team needed me to, because at the end of the day I hate losing more than I love winning. With that being said, no regrets whatsoever, any opportunity to take the mound I’m all for it,” said Cervantes.
“Your coach is going to pitch you based off of what you’ve shown that you can do. There are times where a pitcher probably should’ve been pulled sooner and vice versa, but at the end of the day, if your coach trusts you to get the job done, then he’s going to hand you the ball.”
Cervantes seemed to show no ill effects when he returned to Medicine Hat to play for the Mavericks this summer, logging 62.2 innings while posting a 5-3 record and a 4.02 ERA during the regular season. In the playoffs, he pitched 6.1 innings and yielded a pair of earned runs during a no-decision that was won 3-2 by the Lethbridge Bulls.
The 22-year-old is now back at MSU, studying corporate fitness, but he’s still seeking playing opportunities.
“My head is still on baseball, one hundred percent, always has been,” said Cervantes, who won a league championship with the Mavs in 2018.
“My plan is to get my degree, rest up and do everything I can to get back out there and compete on the field again.”
TAKING THE BALL
Questions about pitch counts and the strain on throwing arms are always going to come up in baseball, whether it’s at the Little League level or in Major League Baseball (MLB). Nolan Ryan threw an astounding 235 pitches over 13 innings for the California Angels in one game in 1974, and he made his next start after only three days of rest. He finished that season with 26 complete games.
Of course, our collective knowledge of the human body has changed since then and plenty of study has been done on what pitching can do to an arm.
Taylor Burns, a baseball coach who pitched for the University of Central Missouri, has had the ball taken out of his hand after a start and he’s sent pitchers to the dugout earlier than they wanted to leave the mound.
“There’s definitely some grey area in this when it comes to senior pitchers. If a kid’s in his summer following his senior year, and this is it for him, I’d definitely let him go,” said Burns, who is also a strength and conditioning coach at Absolute Human Performance in Edmonton.
“It’s complicated in a college season, too. You want to protect a kid from himself at times and look out for his health and longevity. With that said, the bond you share with your teammates is a brotherhood. Not every guy is going to get looked at in the draft, and the likelihood of ‘making it’ is incredibly low. When you’re old and grey, maybe winning that championship with the boys will be the fondest memory of your life.”
Even in situations where a player is unhappy with having to leave the game, Burns said it is important for coaches to intervene.
“My job as a coach is to look out for the well-being, health, and ultimately the career of my pitchers when it comes to how I use them on the mound. There were times when I flat out had to say, ‘No you’re done.’ And I was okay with the player not being okay with that decision, because ultimately I know I have their best interest at heart,” Burns told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“At the high school level you absolutely have to look out for kids’ arms and I don’t think there’s any grey area whatsoever. In college you’re dealing with adults and potentially athletes who are in the last year they’ll ever compete seriously for the rest of their lives in the sport they love, so I can understand running a guy’s pitch count up there more and also bringing him back on short rest.”
Burns also said innings pitched and the number of pitches thrown don’t tell the whole story about the health of someone’s arm.
“I try to educate players on a whole lot more than pitch count,” he said.
“It’s about ensuring you always warm up to throw and perform proper recovery. It’s about teaching them to listen to their arm and not push too hard at certain times. It’s about taking time off during the calendar year and not just taking that time to rest, but to spend dedicated effort to restore mobility, passive stiffness, and strength.”
For many pitchers who have wrapped up their college playing careers, education – about baseball or other fields of study – is also more important than pitch counts.