When the Peninsula Oilers open pursuit of a fourth National Baseball Congress World Series championship, much of their fate will be determined by the efficiency of the pitching staff.
The Alaska Baseball League regular-season champions bring a deep, stingy staff into the 64-team tournament, with an opening round game against the Northwest (Washington) Honkers at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita, Kan.
The Oilers finished atop the ABL in a slew of individual and team pitching categories both this season and in 2010 under second-year head coach Dennis Machado, who also is the pitching coach at California State University, Bakersfield.
The Oilers also led the league in ERA in 2007 and 2008, when Machado served as the team's pitching coach.
But what makes Peninsula's arms so good? How does Machado build his staff? And what strategies does the coach employ when managing a cast of pitchers?
"There's always something to learn. As you are in the game longer and longer and you see more and more, your approach is going to evolve," Machado said from the bleachers at Coral Seymour Memorial Park on Friday, hours before the Oilers clinched the ABL title with a 10-4 win over the Athletes in Action Fire. "It's always evolving, but I think it will always center around the No. 1 thing for me, which is flat getting after it and showing guys what that means."
Greg Maddux, the only pitcher in Major League Baseball history to win at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons and one of two to earn the Cy Young Award four straight years, rarely reached 90 mph on the radar gun.
Instead he used wit, guile and composure to earn the nickname "Mad Dog," winning more than 300 games and becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The lesson: It doesn't take a 100 mph fastball or knee-buckling curveball to be a successful pitcher.
That's how Machado sees it.
"Talent helps, but it's about having the right mentality and the mentality is imposing your will on each pitch you throw. It's about having something in you that refuses to let anything happen other than what you want to have happen," Machado said. "That starts with what we call a ‘want-to.' It starts with making a decision on what's going to happen, with intent and aggression and your will carrying that out."
Although that mentality has always been a big part of his approach to coaching, Machado said his outlook evolves each day.
From CSUB head coach Bill Kernen to American Legion Twins General Manager Lance Coz to his counterparts around the league, Machado has used those around him to hone his strategies.
But it always comes back to one thing - the want-to.
"For our guys this summer, we've not really talked about results. It's about competing. They know that whatever result happens, if they are in the right gear and competing, I am OK with that - 100 percent OK with that. I'll take whatever happens if they are laying it out there," Machado said. "The times when we have problems are when they aren't laying it out there.
"That's when we talk about some things. I don't care how good your fastball is, I don't care how good your slider is. None of that stuff matters."
The Oilers' most efficient pitchers in 2011 modeled that behavior.
Jordan Mills, who finished with a 5-1 record, said much of his success started from the neck up - not with his 6-foot-5 frame or repertoire of pitches.
"If you are out there pitching and you are being soft, the hitters can sense that," Mills said. "If you're doing that, they are going to hit you. If you have good stuff, you just need to know you are better than them. It's about intent."
Same with Gabriel Asakura, who led the Oilers in starts with eight.
Asakura said once he steps on the mound, mechanics go out the window and the desire to win takes over.
"You can practice that stuff over and over," he said. "But once it's a game, the most important thing is getting hitters out, helping the team win."
Building a Solid Staff
Attend a high school baseball game where a talented pitcher is on the mound, and it's common to see a scout or college coach sitting behind home plate.
They hold radar guns to measure the athlete's velocity. They take a line behind the catcher to measure the break of curveballs. They study the athlete's mechanics.
Machado isn't one of those coaches.
He sits down the first- or third-base line when watching a pitcher, studying the athlete's demeanor from a distance - at least in the beginning.
"I don't know what his fastball is. I don't see all that stuff right away because the first thing I am looking for is, does he compete? Does he fight? Does he battle? Does he do those things? Does he pitch in the right gear?" Machado said. "If he doesn't, then I'm not recruiting him. If he does, what I'll do is I'll wait until he gets in a little bit of trouble, then I'll go behind home plate and I'll see, does he nibble or does he pound it? When the game is on the line, does he back off? Or does he step on the gas? If he backs off, I don't recruit him."
That approach has yielded success at CSUB. Machado watches pitchers many times during the recruiting process - and talks to them on a consistent basis - before he makes a scholarship offer.
Machado's club finished 2011 with the nation's 11th-best team ERA at 2.87 and was seventh-best in walks allowed per nine innings at 2.45.
CSUB also had three starting pitchers who logged at least 106 innings, an accomplishment Machado said is rare at the college level.
"We had three competitive kids on the mound on the weekends that, if you went out to the mound to take them out, they might punch you in the face, which is what you want to have happen," the coach said.
When assembling the roster for the Oilers, however, Machado doesn't have the luxuries of time or in-person visits. He relies mainly on word of mouth and scouting reports.
And since the season is short - a little more than two months, including the playoffs - the coach instills his beliefs from Day 1.
If a pitcher doesn't show heart or confidence, there's a good chance his time on the central Kenai Peninsula will be short.
"What you try to get these guys to understand is, it's about your intent, it's about aggressiveness and it's about pitching in the right gear. If you have a pitcher that's in the right gear, throwing the ball aggressively with intent, you can take whatever result happens," Machado said. "If he goes out and gives up some hits, gives up some runs, I'll take that every day of the week. If he is in the right gear, the right frame of mind, you'll take it."
ABL vs. NCAA
For Machado, the ABL schedule presents unique challenges when managing a staff.
During the college season, starting pitchers generally get six days off between outings because most games are played on the weekends.
In the ABL, it's common for squads to play 10 games in as many days, sometimes more. Many times starters receive just four days of rest between appearances.
That's why Machado keeps his starters on a strict pitch count. When they reach 75 pitches in a game, the coach will turn to the bullpen unless it's a unique situation.
Only once this season did a Peninsula starter pitch eight innings. That was Mills, who tossed 98 pitches in eight shutout innings in a win over the Mat-Su Miners on June 28.
Although Mills said there were times this season when he wanted to stay in the game after he was pulled, he came to realize Machado had a plan.
"There has been, but you realize it's better for me," Mills said. "He's doing the right thing. He wants what's best for us."
Machado wants his starters fresh for the postseason and is afraid of burning them out with 100-pitch outings during the regular season.
More important, the coach said, is keeping the athletes healthy.
Asakura, Mills and the rest of the starters log about nine months of work each season with their respective colleges.
Throw in two-plus months with the Oilers, and there's a lot of stress on their bodies.
"I want them to be able to go back to school ready to compete. If I wear them down up here, when they go back to school they will have to shut it down for a month and they won't be ready to compete in their program, which is No. 1," Machado said. "I want them to be healthy. The last thing I ever would want to do is have someone get hurt up here. That's one of our major concerns with pitchers, is being safe and putting them in a position to be successful."
Managing the starting rotation is only half the job for Machado.
The Oilers featured a seven-man bullpen during the regular season, and also had pitchers who shifted between the starting rotation and bullpen.
By limiting the starters to about 75 pitches, Machado created many opportunities for the relief pitchers.
It was common for Peninsula to use four, five and sometimes six pitchers per game.
"I also have a bullpen full of guys that need to pitch too. When you let a guy go 120 pitches, he's going to get into the eighth and ninth inning. Now I've got a bullpen full of guys that haven't thrown," Machado said. "Everyone is up here to pitch and to develop, so if I let the starters take all the innings, the guys in the bullpen aren't going to get their work. So it goes into being able to utilize more personnel, which keeps everybody sharp. It keeps everybody pitching. It keeps everybody into what they are doing."
In 2010, when Peninsula led the league in ERA, the squad had two of the three ABL leaders in appearances - Jorge Marban (21) and Taylor Garrison (17).
It was no different this year.
The Oilers, who played 26 ABL games, once again led the league in ERA and seven of their pitchers appeared in at least 11 games.
Mark Winkelman led the way with 16, while Reese McGraw had 15. Tyler Blum and James Mannara got into 14 games apiece, while Brandon Kizer and J.D. Salles both took the mound 12 times. Cameron McVey played in 11 games.
Excluding Salles, who joined the starting rotation midway through the year, Peninsula relievers averaged less than 1 1-3 innings per appearance.
Winkelman, Blum, McVey, McGraw, Mannara and Kizer combined for 94 appearances, notching 116 innings.
McGraw said it was easier to focus because he knew there would always be chances to pitch.
"You just keep playing your game, can't get out of that," McGraw said. "Hit by hit, pitch by pitch, you can't think about the next inning. You've just got to take it inning by inning."
In contrast to the Oilers, the Anchorage Bucs had just two relievers post double digits in appearances - Conner Kendrick (12) and Hunter Lemke (10).
The Miners had four in double digits, but none with more than 13. The Athletes in Action Fire had four, but none with more than 11. The Anchorage Glacier Pilots also had four, but none with more than 14.
Machado said it's no accident his relievers are in the game so frequently.
"It's not about how many innings they throw out of the bullpen. It's about how many appearances I can get them," he said. "They are getting more work out of less innings than, let's say, another team that uses a bullpen guy for five innings. Now he's got to sit for four or five days to recover. Our guys can pitch two innings and they can throw an inning the next day."