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Softball scoring up with pitchers back

Kings Park pitcher #9 Lindsay Taylor during the

Kings Park pitcher #9 Lindsay Taylor during the Class A Finals against Eastport High School held at Kings Park High School. Credit: Frank Koester

It's only three feet, which may not seem like much. But moving the pitching rubber from 40 to 43 feet away from the plate in softball already has had quite an impact on the game. Fewer pitchers can dominate with pure heat and there has been a dramatic increase in runs scored. The new distance has changed the game.

"This rule change is long overdue," said longtime Hofstra softball coach Bill Edwards, who has guided the Pride to a 29-10 record and first place in the Colonial Athletic Association. "They should have gone with the rule years ago when many other states made the change at the high school level. It was the best thing for the college game."

The college distance changed to 43 feet in 1987 but the National Federation of State High School Associations adopted the change in 2009. Most states, including New York, have instituted the new pitching distance since the rule change was approved. The CHSAA adopted the rule last season, but this is the first year New York's public schools are pitching from the longer distance.

"I like the change for a few reasons," said New York's all-time winningest high school coach, Jim McGowan of Bay Shore, who has 645 victories and seven state titles. "There has been a significant increase in offense and it puts a little more pressure on everyone from the coaches to the players.

"To be successful, pitchers have to be able to mix speeds and hit their spots. They can't rely on just a fastball anymore, and that will make them better pitchers at the next level. Hitters will adjust to the distance and have more time to react and put the ball in play. And the defense will be forced to make more plays because the era of the pitchers dominating the game is over."

The governing body in Major League Baseball made a similar move in 1893. The pitcher's mound was moved from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches because the game was dominated by pitchers and no one wanted to watch. They also eliminated the pitching box, and a rubber slab 12 inches by 4 inches was substituted.

"This will sophisticate the high school game," Edwards said. "There was no game within the game. There was no strategy to the game. Everyone sat back and watched the pitcher strike everyone out. They can't do that anymore."

Now there's accountability in all areas of the game. Coaches can't hide defensive liabilities because with more balls in play, the defense is forced to execute properly. The rule has exposed the defense and made coaches work on infield rotations, bunt coverage and fielding like never before.

"Every aspect of the game changes, from baserunning to defense," Edwards said. "Pitchers used to be in complete control."

That has not been the case through the first month of this softball season.

Pitchers are looking for a lot more defensive help. The elite pitchers, for the most part, still are experiencing success, but there have been some bumps. Kings Park star Lindsay Taylor was on the wrong end of a 16-1 loss to Deer Park, an unheard-of final score with her on the rubber.

"The new distance gives the batters an advantage," said Taylor, a senior who will play for Syracuse next season. "There's an adjustment and the pitchers that master the off-speed pitches will have success. The batters have three more feet to track the pitch, so you need more movement and great location. And you have to trust your defense and they have to make plays."

Taylor, who has a lively fastball in the range of 57 to 59 mph, rebounded from that loss with seven wins, including two perfect games and five shutouts.

"We're a young team and we're playing much better on defense," said Taylor, who as a five-year varsity player has seven perfect games and 17 no-hitters.

"There's a spike in the offensive numbers and the defense is definitely being tested," said Kings Park coach Kim McGinley, in her 25th year with the program and 12th as a head coach. "Strikeouts are down and it's become more of a hitter's game. Pitchers are going to have to work harder to get people out. Lindsay is still averaging 14 strikeouts per game and her velocity is very good, but we're a young team learning to play defense."

One pitcher who hasn't been affected by the change is Bay Shore's Taylor McGowan, who has accepted a scholarship to play for Rollins College, a Division II powerhouse in Winter Park, Fla. McGowan, whose fastball is consistently 56 to 59 mph, is 7-0 and her strikeouts continue to climb. She has 71 strikeouts in 47 innings, averaging 10.6 per seven innings.

"Taylor is an anomaly," said Jim McGowan, her father and coach. "Her strikeout numbers are going up. She has more movement, and the kids that have more movement are not going to be as stuck as the ones who throw hard and straight. Good hitters are tracking the ball better and putting it in play. Spin pitchers have not been affected as much as power pitchers."

So the advantage is not gone for everyone. Power pitchers still are going to get strikeouts but those numbers will dwindle against the better hitters who now have a longer time to see the pitch and recognize the pitch. Pitch counts will increase as batters foul more pitches off and pitchers will need to develop a second pitch now more than ever.

"The 43-foot distance is the best thing that ever happened in the college game," Edwards said. "And now it's the best thing to happen here in the high school game."

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