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September 18, 2014

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Little League caps pitch count to protect young arms

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Griffin Haddrill pitches during a Peccole Little League game Wednesday, April 21, 2010.

Little League Pitch Count

After reaching his maximum pitch count earlier in the week, pitcher Justin Rasavage playes first while Griffin Haddrill pitches during a Peccole Little League game Wednesday, April 21, 2010. Launch slideshow »

On Saturdays, 12-year-old Justin Rasavage wakes up, grabs his navy blue Yankees ball cap and heads to the baseball diamond to join his team for an afternoon Little League game.

On Sundays, Justin grabs the orange and blue cap of his club team, the Las Vegas Warriors, for more baseball action.

For youngsters such as Justin, youth baseball in Las Vegas involves a delicate balance of playing on two teams — a recreational Little League squad for three months each spring, and a more competitive club team that competes year-round.

And for pitchers, the challenge of juggling game and practice schedules also involves math: The number of pitches they throw in a game or over a week can lead to arm troubles that may dog an aspiring ballplayer for years — and even derail hopes of serious play.

In 2006, Little League implemented a pitch count, limiting the number of pitches a player can throw each game and dictating a required amount of rest between outings. The pitches are only counted in Little League games.

So those guidelines can easily be busted by children playing in Little League and club teams each week, and in some instances each day, if coaches and parents don’t keep careful count and share that information.

The Little League pitch count for someone in Justin’s Majors Division, for children primarily ages 11 and 12, is 85 pitches per game with four calendar days of rest before pitching again.

But with no official monitoring process between leagues, overthrowing is a real possibility unless coaches and parents stay on top of it.

Justin’s Little League coach, Glen Stevens, does just that. On a recent afternoon, Stevens wanted to pencil Justin in as the starting pitcher, but first called his family to make sure the seventh-grader hadn’t thrown the previous night in a club game.

“You really have to rely on your coach or manager having the good judgment to put the kids’ health before the desire to win,” said Stevens, who is president of the Peccole league. “There will obviously always be an opportunity for a bad decision to be made. There is really no way to police this except for the parents and coaches to monitor the situation.”

Click to enlarge photo

Justin Rasavage shows off his four pitches, from left, two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, change up and curve.

But the fervor of competition can trump caution. Some coaches are so consumed with winning — the ultimate destination for Little League players in Justin’s age group is a trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. — that they are willing to expose the pitcher to injury, Stevens said.

“It’s a slippery slope with club ball and Little League,” said Ron Sufana, who coaches the Las Vegas Bulldogs 11-and-under club team and heads the American Legion affiliate at Green Valley High.

“As a parent, you have to have a limit and stick to it. Some people are all about winning, and that is fine. But most of us are out here for the kids and to give them the proper avenue to enjoy the game. You can’t enjoy it with an injured arm.”

Robert Braden, a Las Vegas-area chiropractor who specializes in pitcher arm injuries, said he treats one patient who is 10 years old.

“It is getting ridiculous,” said Braden, who started working with pitchers more than a decade ago with the Las Vegas triple-A affiliate. “You should see the look and attitude I get from some coaches when I mention shutting a kid down.”

Braden is a firm believer in giving players such as Justin a two-month break each year, and using the downtime to work on arm-strength exercises. Elbow soreness is most frequent with younger ballplayers, while high school athletes usually have shoulder problems once that part of the arm develops, he said.

He argues that a 12-year-old should only throw 100 pitches a week, 1,000 per season and 3,000 per year. After that, they run the risk of surgery, a shortened career and being burned out, he said.

“It’s a volume issue. It’s not just in Vegas, but all areas of the country,” Braden said. “This has turned into a 12-month sport. When I was in high school, we would play football, basketball and then baseball. It’s become a volume issue of overthrowing.”

You can’t blame the children for wanting to play.

Click to enlarge photo

Justin Rasavage warms up during a Peccole Little League game Wednesday, April 21, 2010.

Justin is a typical child who is passionate about baseball. If it were his decision, he would play around the clock. He dreams of making the big leagues and playing for his favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I throw as many pitches as I can until my arm gets sore or I start walking batters,” Justin said.

Nick Rasavage, Justin’s dad, is like most parents who race around town making sure his children get to the right event. The phone call from Stevens was comforting to a father who wants the best for his son.

“Most parents won’t let their kids throw two games in a row, and the coaches all know that,” Rasavage said. “But some coaches are out to win, especially in these tournaments. They will tell the kids not to throw in Little League games.

“It is your child and your responsibility to make sure your child doesn’t get hurt.”

Mike Martin has been instructing youth baseball players for nearly three decades at his Las Vegas Baseball Academy. It hosts a 22-team spring club league where Martin said he often witnesses pitchers being overworked.

Even before studies found the detriment of a young arm being overused, Martin said he had his pitchers follow a strict schedule.

“People who have played the game of baseball understand workloads and why it is important to limit how much a kid throws,” Martin said. “You hear it all the time of a kid throwing on Friday and coming back to throw on Saturday. Shame on the parents for allowing this to happen. Shame on them for witnessing both ends of what coaches are doing.”

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