Your starter has been tagged for three runs in the seventh inning, the game’s hanging in the balance and your reliever is trotting to the mound.
What happens now?
If you are coach Johnny Bernhard, plenty.
In crunch time there’s no time for dawdling, says the coach at St. Michael the Archangel High School in Baton Rouge, La. He focuses on four points when getting his reliever prepared.
● Catching Up While warming up in the bullpen, it’s a pitcher’s job to focus on his own preparation, not on the game. He might not even be able to see the field. Once he gets the call, he needs to play catch-up.
“When he’s making his trot to the mound, he needs to find out the first situation he’s coming into: How many men on base? What bases? How many outs?” said Bernhard, whose teams have advanced to the state championships three of the past five years. “By the time we hand him the ball, he needs to know whether he’s throwing from a stretch position or a windup.”
● Feedback from the Pitcher Since the coach is preoccupied with the game, he can’t watch a reliever in the bullpen. It’s up to the pitcher to give him a status report.
“He needs to tell you what’s working for him and what’s not,” Bernhard said. “If you have a pitcher who has a fastball, curveball, change up and slider, he might tell us, ‘Hey coach, my slider isn’t working well.’ He’s got to tell us so that when we’re calling pitches we have that information and can stay away from that pitch. Or maybe he really got his curveball working in the bullpen. He needs to tell us that.”
● Warm-Up Pitches Forget about throwing at maximum speed. Instead, the pitcher should focus on the strike zone, the correct grip and his mechanics. In the end, however, the mound comes first.
“Getting him used to the mound is very important,” Bernhard said. “At the high school level, not every mound is the same. You may have a kid throwing from almost flat ground in the bullpen because that’s how the bullpen was constructed at that particular field. Then he comes into the game to a 22-inch mound, and he’s suddenly throwing from this big, steep mound.”
Although many coaches believe a pitcher should avoid revealing his best stuff during the eight warm-up pitches, Bernhard is more interested in getting an accurate read of his staff.
“If a pitcher has a chance to throw all his pitches off a game mound, that’s always critical preparation,” he said. “We want to throw all his pitches right there. We want to know if he can execute his curveball and have his plant foot where it needs to be on a new mound. We’d rather know that than try to hide something.”
● Don't State the Obvious A high school pitcher is probably going to be feeling the pressure when he comes into a game in crunch time, Bernhard said, so “we don’t need to remind him how important it is.”
“What you try to do is focus his mind on what it needs to be focused on to get the job done,” Bernhard said. “For example, you can focus on the information you have on the next two hitters.”