Written by Corbett Smith
In baseball playoffs, a third starter is a valuable asset - just ask Frisco Liberty and FM Marcus
CARROLLTON — It’s a baseball coach’s nightmare — going into a three-game playoff series with only two reliable starters.
“The scariest thing for a high school coach is having to go into that third game and go to a guy who hasn’t pitched at all,” Hebron coach Steve Stone said. “You try to have enough depth, but you’ve got what you’ve got.”
Most playoff teams will have options to fill the role of a third starter. But finding meaningful innings for that pitcher is difficult — with most teams locked into a two-man rotation during district play.
“It takes some foresight to find time for a third pitcher,” Flower Mound Marcus coach Jeff Sherman said. “You’ve got to be preparing him throughout the season — creating big-game situations in midweek scrimmages or bullpens. Because, when you get into a situation where he might pitch in the playoffs, it could be six weeks since he’s had his last start.”
Frisco Liberty coach Scott McGarrh, Sherman and Stone all won three-game series in the first round of the UIL playoffs — each using a different mix of strategies to get their third starter ready to pitch.
For McGarrh, his third starter is actually the team’s best pitcher. Frisco Liberty senior Josh Ryan served as the team’s closer, with six saves and a sub-1.00 ERA. Knowing that he was going to be moved into a starting role, McGarrh gave Ryan a start in each round of district play.
“We were going to stretch him out to 90 pitches or so, just to get him prepared for the playoffs,” McGarrh said.
In a must-win Game 2 against Mesquite Poteet, Ryan pitched a complete-game no-hitter, striking out 10.
Instead of putting Marcus’ third starter in Game 1 of a bi-district series against Euless Trinity, Sherman used his two “best strike-throwers” — regular starters Jack Cushing and West Virginia signee Conner Dotson — in the first two games of the series. Junior left-hander Ethan Nichols — who had only four starts on the season — was called on for Game 3, allowing five hits and striking out six batters in a 5-1 win.
Sherman said that early-season tournaments were essential in identifying Nichols as the third starter. Nichols was a reserve JV pitcher in 2013.
“I think that’s a huge bit of playoff preparation, because you only get three chances in tournaments to find out who that third guy is,” Sherman said.
Stone rolled out freshman Zach DeLoach in the series opener against Colleyville Heritage, getting a 6-2 win.
DeLoach entered the season expected to contend for the No. 2 starter role; Stone called him “pretty polished” for a freshman — a legitimate 5A starter with four quality pitches. But a strained biceps tendon midway through non-district forced DeLoach to miss two weeks, and it opened the door for senior Drew Roth. Roth cemented his spot as Hebron’s No. 2 pitcher with a solid district campaign, while DeLoach spent his time as the team’s centerfielder.
“We’ve been doing a lot of workouts, in the off-season as well as in-season,” DeLoach said. “I’ve done things in my off time, hitting and doing bullpens with my dad and brother. Staying healthy was a key part to me pitching.”
Stone said there were some doubt from he and his staff when to pitch DeLoach. Hebron saved its ace, Travis Stone, for the series finale — and he clinched the series, allowing three hits in a 2-1 Game 3 win.
“Would Zach be more big-eyed in Game 1 or a Game 3 where you must win?” Stone said. “We put him out there, and he let us set the tone for the whole series. He really allowed us to stack our pitching the way we wanted to.”