Column: Yavapai trying to get past early-season pitching struggles

'On The Ball'

Two years ago when Yavapai College claimed the program’s fourth national title, its pitching staff hung in there with the best arms in the country.

JoJo Romero, Hayden Durkiewicz, Andrew Gross and workhorse Chase Beal led the Roughriders to a 4.45 team ERA in 2016, ranked 42nd in the country.

And that didn’t tell the whole story, as Romero finished the season boasting an 11-5 record with six complete games and 129 strikeouts in 113.2 innings pitched.

His ERA that year? A shiny 3.64. For a club that plays half its games at the jet stream that is known as Roughrider Park? That’s pretty good.

The left-handed hurler went on to strikeout 13 batters in the national title game, and a month later was drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Fast forward to 2018, Yavapai (4-9, 0-2 ACCAC) came into Saturday’s doubleheader with South Mountain having posted a 6.98 team ERA, ranked 158th nationally.

In the first 11 games this season away from Roughrider Park, the pitching staff had walked 46 batters in 59-1/3 innings pitched, and the defense behind them committed 13 errors.

Perhaps the most staggering statistic is what has transpired late in games. After Saturday’s double dip, the hometown club has surrendered 64 of its 93 total runs allowed in the fifth inning or later.

In game one Saturday, however, left-handed starter Tommy Costello was brilliant, pitching into the seventh inning for Yavapai by allowing just two runs through six.

Then the wheels fell off.

After Juan Colato roped a two RBI double down the right field to give South Mountain (11-6, 2-0 ACCAC) a 4-2 lead, Costello was removed for Taylor Frost. Three pitches into the sophomore’s outing, the Eugene, Oregon, right hander served up a three-run homer to Kole Kaler and the Cougars rolled to an 8-2 win.

“First pitch was a changeup away, and then I went hard in, we were playing tight. He (Colato) did a good job to battle that fastball in, and hit it into shallow right,” Costello said after throwing 92 pitches and receiving his first loss of the spring. “He executed better.”

The sophomore from Simi Valley allowed six runs, all earned, on eight hits and six strikeouts in six-plus innings pitched. He first pointed to himself, than a lack of focus for Yavapai’s late struggles on the mound.

“I have to be better in the later half of the games,” Costello said. “Our pitching staff has to be able to focus a little bit longer as a whole team, be locked in for all seven or nine innings of a game.”

Other starters for Yavapai haven’t faired as well.

In two starts, Darius Vines is 0-1 with a 5.06 ERA. R.J. Martinez’ two appearances have been a disaster, allowing 16 runs, 13 earned, with most of the damage coming in a 13-3 loss to Southern Nevada on Feb. 9 when he was pulled after just two innings.

The bullpen has struggled even more, with Dominic Hamel (15.75 ERA) and Kyle Merkel (33.75 ERA), among others, still feeling things out.

So what are the Roughriders doing to correct the problem? Skipper Ryan Cougill says it’s still early in the season.

“You have starting pitchers on pitch counts. As far as today, that wasn’t the case. Our pitch counts were long enough and deep enough to where those guys all gave us a chance,” Cougill said. “I think it’s a combination of the game speeding up on guys as they are approaching the finish line and that’s something we’ll have to work though.”

Jonathan Stroman allowed only one run in seven innings pitched in game two Saturday, allowing four hits and striking out five after throwing 85 pitches in a 3-0 loss.

“Our decisions we make a month from now will be different from today,” Cougill said about how he’ll make decisions in the near future on pulling a starter. “Pitching gave us a chance to win today, and winning is a team thing.”

Despite being swept in their home opener, and suffering just the fourth shutout at Roughrider Park since 2014, if Saturday’s outstanding starting pitching is any indication, perhaps the staff is turning the corner.

Brian M. Bergner Jr. is sports editor for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @SportsWriter52 or on Facebook at @SportsAboveTheFold. Email or call (928) 445-3333, ext. 1106.