Baseball preview: With new pitch count rule, depth on the mound will be key

The grass is sopping wet, the infield dirt, pigpen glop. You’ve been able to get outside only once, just to practice relay plays from the outfield, on a gray day hovering between clouds and a cold rain.

Opening Day is days away and there is a good chance that preparatory scrimmages you have scheduled might be wiped out, due to rain and snow cover.

And rain is in the forecast for the season opener, scheduled for Saturday against the Hartford Magnet School, to be played at 2 at the Trinity College baseball field in Hartford.

Ahh, New England baseball. You’ve gotta love it.

Wilton High varsity baseball head coach Tim Eagen is well acquainted with early spring baseball in Wilton. Starting his 38th season as the Warrior pilot, he has had to face more than his fair share of compressed scheduling and decision-making as he puts together a competitive FCIAC team.

“The guys are itching to get outside,” he said. “We haven’t even been able to have our outfielders catch fly balls in the snow drifts piled up in the north parking lot the way we did a couple of years ago.”

Once he gets past the unpleasant chore of whittling down his roster to the varsity squad he will keep, Eagen will have to face a manmade vagary: the new Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) baseball pitch count rule.

There have always been limitations levied upon pitchers to avoid potential arm overuse and injury, both short- and long-term. Innings per week was the coin of the realm. This year, however, the new CIAC rules mandate a more detailed accounting — specifically the use of a pitch count to determine how much a pitcher is allowed to throw.

Every pitch from each pitcher must be counted, recorded and logged, with the log having to be handed in at the end of the season. While the overall goal of ensuring against arm injury is an admirable one, the more mundane matter of who counts the pitches leaves room for some controversy.

Umpires won’t do it, so what completely unbiased entity will perform the function? You can bet partisans for each side will be tracking the numbers. Hopefully, there will be agreement among all parties.

Meanwhile, Eagen welcomes in a new team.

There are changes this year, of course, including in his coaching staff. While habitual returnees pitching coach Mark Ketley and third base and infield coach Don Heibeck remain with the varsity, a new head JV coach, Rich Riscica, and assistant coach, Ed Klukojc, replace Ian Thoesen, now head coach at Newtown High, and assistant Brandon Tegano. Casey O’Brien and Bill Heibeck will return as head coach and assistant coach of the freshman team.

Last season, five seniors played key roles for a team that missed the FCIAC tournament but went three games deep (quarterfinals) in the state playoffs, while compiling a 13-10 overall record.

Eagen lost Glenn O’Brien, statistically his most valuable player, with the most wins, lowest earned run average and second highest batting average on the team, pitcher Jack Mastrianna, catcher Brennan Ryan, third baseman Mike Tienken and first baseman Henry Hovland, the team MVP.

This year, Eagen looks forward to returning veterans in terms of both age and experience. Two of his three captains — Collin Kahal and Henry Strmecki — served in the same capacity last year. Matt D’Elisa, no stranger to a leadership role as tri-captain of last year’s football team, joins them.

The outfield of a year ago remains intact. Drew Connolly combines with D’Elisa and Strmecki to form one of the best defensive trios in the FCIAC. Junior Ryan Gabriele is likely to be a fourth outfielder as well as a backup at first base. He will also pitch.

Kahal and Dillon Lifrieri, a junior and three-year starter, will anchor the infield, with senior Jack Dooley, primarily a designated hitter last year, scheduled to hold down first base. While the final cuts were unavailable at press time, Eagen will fill out his infield from a group of players that includes senior Jack Gioffre, sophomore Kyle Phillips, senior Cole Lipsky (who will also pitch), sophomore Chris Tienken, and possibly seniors Otto Stenzler and Brandon Zheng.

Behind the plate, Eagen has a pair of beefy boppers in junior Jack DiNanno, a veteran, having shared catching duties last year, and Cole Judelson, a sophomore who sparkled as a freshman. Senior Matt LaMetta, currently nursing a broken finger, figures to be in the mix.

As always, pitching is the name of the game, and Wilton has its ace, senior Bill Black, back. While Black registered a sub-.500 season, he could have had at least seven victories or more given the quality of his pitching. This year, both taller and stronger, he has added even more pop to his pitches and with a year under his belt looks primed for a playoff run.

Ben Rusin is in line for the second spot. The senior right-hander started off last year promisingly and then faded due to both injury and perhaps a lack of confidence. He’s not starting that way this year. In both attitude and approach, he is determined to have a strong campaign.

The lefty Gabriele should contribute solidly, given his experience last year, and Lipsky has impressed coach Ketley with the array and accuracy of his throws.

Beyond these four, there is uncertain depth. With the new rule, however, pitching and more pitching will become the order of the day. D’Elisa, Phillips and Strmecki might be called upon to fill in for extra outs and innings.

“We don’t know where the new rules will take us, but we know everybody is going to need pitchers,” Eagen said.

“I like what I see,” he continued. “I think this year we’ve got a lot of mashers — guys who can go out and crush fastballs. We have to make them into hitters, and I think we can do that.”