When Tom Pia took over as Westhill High School’s softball ball coach in 2004, the strategy book was so much simpler. Try to manufacture a few runs, get a timely hit or two, then ask your hard-throwing pitcher and defense to protect the lead.
When FCIAC contenders faced off, four runs combined was a high-scoring game.
Now it has become a fairly typical inning.
The Vikings, the league’s most consistent program, with one state and two league titles, and three other championship game appearances, the past five years, have already given up 10 runs to Lauralton Hall and 9 to Darien in consecutive games. That would normally leave the occasionally combustible Pia apoplectic. Instead, the Vikings scored a combined 34 runs and won both games to leave them with a 3-1 record.
High-scoring games have become more the norm a week into the season. A number of teams are averaging between 6-10 runs per game. The bunt to move a runner into scoring position has been replaced by the towering home run.
There are a variety of factors. For one, the league has graduated a number of very good pitchers who are now playing in college. The current group, collectively, is not quite at the same level, though not solely due to a lack of ability. Three years ago the league adopted federation rules and moved the distance between the mound and home plate back three feet. The full effect of the change seems to have finally kicked in. Pitchers that once struck out 10-12 batters a game are now seeing balls put in play.
“There are still certain good pitchers still around, but with the rest I don’t know what it is,” Pia said. The three feet definitely has something to do with it. Offseason training has also made a difference. In 2004, no one was doing it.”
Indeed, it may not be that the pitching has dropped so much as the hitting has gotten better. Pia said that since the beginning of December, his players worked out on their own batting twice a week. Pia also paid out of his own pocket — he was not allowed to charge his players or it would have been a violation of CIAC rules — to have a trainer work with them weekly on strength and conditioning.
“The pitchers fall behind because they really can’t pitch to live batters in the preseason,” Pia said.
St. Joseph coach Jeff Babineau said there is still not sufficient data yet to make any grand pronouncements. A preseason favorite, the Cadets have already lost a pair of 3-2 extra-inning games. St. Joseph has two of the league’s better pitchers in returning junior Tori Ceballos and freshman Nicole Williams.
“It’s hard to tell,” Babineau said. “We usually hit, but right now we have four kids hitting close to .400 and five kids under .100 who haven’t broken out yet. I think the FCIAC was so overloaded with dominant pitchers for three to five years. The era where a freshman came in at every school and pitched well for four years, that trend is starting to change a little bit, but it’s too early to tell,” Babineau said.
So has the adage of pitching and defense been replaced by hitting and defense?
“I hope it’s not the beginning of a trend,” Pia said. “I don’t think lacrosse is taking the kids. I think a couple of years ago they would. I want to see what happens when the warm weather comes around if the pitching catches up.”