by Nick Heidelberger
Every season, Elms College baseball coach Scott Netkovick's job becomes extremely complicated during the first week of March.
Cramming 38 of 40 regular-season games into March and April all but requires Elms, and many northern-based baseball programs still fighting off the last of the winter weather, to flock like migrant birds to Florida for Spring Break. This year, the Blazers will play eight games at the annual Gene Cusic Classic in Fort Myers from March 3-8.
Netkovick's everyday challenges of piecing together a lineup that can get runs across the plate and shut down opponents are magnified by the fact that 20 percent of the Blazers' season is played in just a six-day span. Even if he had a perfect lineup, it would be depleted by the time the Blazers get to the back end of their second double-header in as many days – which is what Elms faces Saturday and Sunday when they open the tournament.
Such a schedule requires Netkovick and Elms pitching Coach Matt Dziok to carefully plan ahead while being open to spur-of-the-moment adjustments and making decisions that will impact not only the game at hand, but the two or three after that as well.
"We'll plan out the starters for the first five games, and then we'll pick up the pieces on Tuesday and reset from there," Netkovick said. "Florida is a different animal in itself. There may be days you're in games but do you want to burn an arm to try to chase that game down, or do you bite the bullet and ride it out with who you're with and go after the next one tomorrow? There's a little bit of strategy with that part of it."
Of course, there is one simple solution that could make Dziok and Netkovick's life a little easier in Florida - throw strikes.
"I think we have guys who can come in and fill up the strike zone," Netkovick said. "We're not going to be overtaxed – knock on wood – that we're throwing a bunch of pitches because we can't throw the ball over the plate. That's really what we're looking to do while we're down there."
It goes without saying that any pitching staff would be drained after facing such a demanding schedule. But, Netkovick says, managing the other end of the battery is just as important.
"One of the big things about Florida and managing things is the catching," Netkovick explained. "When you're playing back-to-back double-headers in 85 or 90 degree weather, you can't ride the same guy back there for 28 innings. You have to split that up and work other catchers in there."
With three days of seven-inning double-headers and two nine-inning games, there are plenty of innings to go around, providing some of the unproven Blazers the opportunity to show they can do the job. Freshman pitcher Mickey Howe, who struck out the only batter he faced in Elms' season-opener, is one of the guys who could multiply his in-game experience exponentially during the week.
"It'll be a great experience," the right-hander said. "It's definitely a chance against really good competition. Everyone is going to get a chance to prove themselves and we'll get to see what happens."
While the opportunity to tinker with lineups and give unproven players the chance to shine comes with the territory of stacking so many games in such a short amount of time, Netkovick's mind doesn't stray too far from the bottom line. It is, after all, a business trip.
"Wins and losses is the thing we look at," he said. "If you come back from that trip over .500, you're doing good things. You're playing eight games in six days, you're trying to balance pitching, you're trying to work guys into the lineup, you're trying to balance stuff out. Anytime you can get back over .500 is always a win in our book."
Regardless of record, Netkovick can appreciate the fact that he won't face another week quite like this one. At least not until next year.