By J. Levi Burnfin
Original 501 Column 

Pitch Perfect


It’s a good problem to have.

As the timeless baseball adage goes, “You can never have enough pitching.” The Glasgow Reds might be the exception.

The Reds are 23-4 on the season, collecting a dozen or more blowout wins in the process. Their offense has been spectacular, scoring well more than 10 runs per game.

Their pitching has been better.

“Our pitching is doing an outstanding job,” said Manager Jack Sprague. “We don’t expect anything less than perfection on the mound.”

The Reds are as close to perfection as he could hope so far in the season. As a staff, the Reds have a 2.42 ERA in 162 innings pitched. They have struck out 128 batters and only allowed 140 hits. They have 15 complete games and six shutouts and eight more games where they allowed two runs or fewer. The numbers are staggering. And the individual accomplishments are a mile long, such as Walt Dalbey’s combined record of 19-4 over the past two seasons, but it’s the combined efforts of the Reds’ staff that make Glasgow contenders for a state title.

The Reds are led by veteran starter Walt Dalbey, who is the foundation for an outstanding rotation. He doesn’t have an overwhelming repertoire. He won’t blow people away. But he buys into Sprague’s system for pitching and performs it to perfection.

Sprague says he wants his pitchers to “hit to contact,” a phrase that’s become ridiculed by some in professional baseball. But Sprague uses the term in a bit of a different context.

“Make (the batter) hit your pitch,” he said.

It’s a simple idea. Throw strikes down in the zone, locate your fastball and make it hard for the hitter to get the barrel of the bat to the ball. Dalbey has made it his craft. He won’t strike out double digit batters every outing – though he has struck out 29 in 34 innings – but he forces hitters to continuously pound the ball into the ground, trusting his defense behind him to convert those ground balls into outs and limiting the amount of pitches thrown.

“If we give you the ball in the beginning (of a game), you give me the ball at the end and it’s over,” said Sprague. “Everybody goes out there with a complete game in mind, pitch to contact, get the ball in play and get out of there as fast as we can.”

The idea is easier said than done. But Dalbey has shown it works, going 5-1 on the season with a 1.44 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP (Walks plus Hits divided by Innings Pitched). And the rest of the Reds’ staff has followed Dalbey’s lead.

Johnathon Koessl, the Reds’ second starter in conference games has a 3-0 record with a 1.75 ERA. Their third starter has been Keil Krumwiede, who has a 0.74 ERA in three starts, going 2-0 in the process. Finally, Grant Legare, who only pitches fourth because he’s also the starting shortstop, is 3-0 with a 0.88 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP.

That doesn’t even mention Jason Thibault, who has the best stats on the team, throwing 18 innings, striking out 24 with a 3-1 record, Cutter Kolstad, who has thrown the second most innings on the team with a 2.82 ERA or Andy Gardner and Tom Leland, who were both mainstays in the rotation last season but have dealt with separate injuries limiting them this season.

Leland underwent Tommy John surgery to replace his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow after the season last year and is continuing to regain his strength into this season. Still, he has come out of the bullpen for the Reds and been dominant, not allowing a single run in 6.2 innings of work.

Having so many options gives Sprague “unlimited” flexibility.

“The beautiful part about it is all the pitchers, and a majority of our players, are athletes,” said Sprague. “It is a situation that if we do need to go to our bullpen, for whatever reason, it’s not going to hurt us defensively. All those guys that can pitch can then enter the game somewhere else.”

The flexibility has allowed the Reds to absorb the loss of Gardner, their number two last year, due to injury. Gardner suffered a severe leg injury during football in the fall, rehabbed all winter and spring but was still delayed when it came to baseball season. Then, he also strained his hamstring on his opposite leg, again pushing his availability back.

Sprague says he will use Gardner, the Reds’ only left-handed player, out of the pen for now, giving the Reds even more flexibility.

“We know there are left-handed hitters that simply don’t hit other lefties as well. There’s a couple in our conference,” said Sprague.

Being able to bring Gardner into the game in relief is a weapon many teams in Montana don’t have.

Having several options to fill out a rotation is also a choice not many managers have to make in Montana. Yet, Sprague says some of his starters are pushing to crack that four-man conference rotation.

“We’re blessed with numbers,” said Sprague. “We’re blessed with athletes and I’m blessed as a coach to have guys that actually want to be coached.”


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