The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

July 23, 2013

Miners’ Epling puts emphasis on protecting pitchers

When you think about it, the West Virginia Miners never had to go through many growing pains. They have been to the Prospect League playoffs every year since their inaugural season of 2010. They lost the championship to the Quincy Gems in a one-game format in 2011, then won it all last summer in their third season of existence.

As is normally the case, the Miners rode their pitching to three straight postseason appearances. That was especially evident last year, with Sam Lewis setting a team record with 18 strikeouts in the first game of the championship series, and Joe Candelmo continuing his late-season dominance in the clincher against Dubois County.

The pitching has always been strong throughout the summer, but seems to be just as strong at the end, while others tend to fade.

That’s a testament to the way the Miners take care of their pitchers’ arms — before, during and after an outing. Protecting his pitchers is something West Virginia manager Tim Epling has always hung his hat on, be it red and black at Liberty, blue and gold at WVU Tech or, now, the green and gold of the Miners.

Unfortunately for him, there are college coaches who send their pitchers to play for the Miners who don’t seem convinced.

That’s the way Epling sees it.

The Miners, on target to remain perfect with another postseason appearance, have lost their top two pitchers in a span of less than a month because their college coaches are concerned about their pitch counts and, thus, the health of their arms.

Last month it was David Hess, the league leader in strikeouts. On June 28 he was beating the Richmond RiverRats, only to have his season shut down the next day by Matt Bragga, his coach at Tennessee Tech.

The one that really might have Miners fans holding their breath is the loss of Jaesung Hwang, who had easily established himself as the best pitcher in the league. Hwang’s coach at Lipscomb, Jeff Forehand, pulled the plug after Sunday’s win over Lorain County, in which Epling promptly took Hwang out after he walked a batter with his 74th pitch with two out in the fifth inning.

“From a staff standpoint, anytime you lose your No. 1 and No. 2 arms from any team, it hurts,” Epling said. “But other people will have to pick up the slack. As a whole, our pitching has been doing good.”

That is certainly true. The Miners had thrown three straight shutouts and 28 straight scoreless innings going into Tuesday’s game at Richmond. Hess was long gone and Hwang only pitched 4 2-3 of those innings, so there is plenty of talent beyond the two, including Evin Einhardt (3-1, 0.98 earned run average), Quinton Yocom (4-3. 2.25), Rolando Celis (1-3, 2.41) and the ambidextrous Ryan Perez (2-0, 2.84). And don’t forget long reliever Brandon Koch, who is 5-2 with a save and 3.02 ERA in 14 appearances, all but one out of the bullpen.

Epling just wishes college coaches would look past the pitch counts that have become a part of baseball today — Bob Gibson would probably have laughed in the face of his manager if told he could only throw 75 pitches — and wrap their minds around the importance he places in protecting his pitchers.

“It’s disappointing — and I understand the coaches’ standpoint. They have to protect their programs, and pitching is the lifeline,” Epling said. “But our program with the West Virginia Miners is different than others because we place a lot of emphasis on arm care. We make sure we protect their arms.

“But a lot of coaches do not seem to understand that pitchers’ safety is priority No. 1. Coaches are being apprehensive, because if you don’t have pitching, you can’t win.

“We explain it to them, but they don’t seem to understand.”

It’s something Epling has had to deal with from the beginning. Ohio State product Dean Wolosiansky was under constant watch by Buckeyes coach Bob Todd, although he was allowed to stay and wound up being named the league’s pitcher of the year in 2010.

Epling pointed out that none of his pitchers has ever endured an injury related to overuse.

“To not get anybody hurt as far as arm care, I take pride in that,” Epling said.

This type of thing doesn’t happen just in the Prospect League. College coaches of players in the Cape Cod League, considered the top collegiate summer league in the nation, are shutting their pitchers down after 60 innings, regardless of pitch count.

Epling, a former Minor League Baseball umpire who has contacts all over the country, attributes much of his knowledge on pitchers’ recovery time to things he has learned from Brent Strom, the minor league pitching coordinator for the St. Louis Cardinals. All the Cardinals have done in recent years is win a couple of World Series, and this season have the best record in the majors.

Hitting has played a big part in that success — i.e. Albert Pujols before he moved on to the Los Angeles Angels — but the pitching has been key, and much of that has been home grown. Rookie Shelby Miller and fiery Lance Lynn were both drafted by the Cardinals, and Adam Wainwright was drafted by Atlanta but traded to St. Louis before his big league career started.

All three were developed under Strom’s eye, so he knows what he’s doing.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about losing Hwang comes from a local standpoint. A Prospect League title might not mean much to college coaches in Tennessee, but it would be huge to a small-town community such as Beckley. The Miners are on a roll — 20 wins in their last 24 games — and the crowds are beginning to reflect that.

Hopefully, fans won’t lose interest because Lipscomb wants to win the Atlantic Sun championship.

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