Going from high school to the West Coast League can be a difficult adjustment, even for top college prospects.
For most pitchers, it's the first time facing wood bats and a lineup full of college-level hitters. Mistakes get punished more often, forcing players to raise their game or suffer the consequences.
But as a season full of injuries and other departures nears its end, freshmen on the mound have become a much more frequent sight for Yakima Valley. Stuart Flesland became the latest one to struggle Saturday night and a late rally from a lineup featuring four incoming freshmen wasn't enough to prevent a 11-5 loss to Walla Walla.
"For him, he needs to be a more competitive strike-thrower," coach Marcus McKimmy said. "He was upwards of 80 pitches through three. We would like to get him deeper."
Flesland followed up a dominant senior season at Mt. Spokane with an impressive summer for the U-19 Spokane Expos, posting a 1.15 ERA and a 7-0 record. Two rough starts for the Pippins have reminded the highly touted Boise State signee pitching will be much tougher at the next level.
He became the third straight Yakima Valley starter to give up multiple runs in the first inning, falling behind 2-0. Flesland nearly maintained that score through three innings, but three two-out hits capped off by a three-run homer soured the lefthander's last inning.
Two Pippins errors contributed to a disastrous five-run before they finally scored in the eighth inning. Singles by James Bell and incoming freshman Sawyer Chesley helped cut the lead to 10-5, but Yakima Valley still stranded two runners on base to bring its total to eight for the game.
Unlike the other three hitters in the lineup who graduated this spring, Chesley took a year off from baseball before committing to join Fullerton College next season. Still, after joining the Pippins a month ago, the Laguna Beach High (Calif.) graduate needed to make the same adjustments as the others facing college pitchers for the first time.
"Curveballs curve more and sliders slide more and fastballs are faster," Sawyer said. "That’s what you get with better pitching. Guys hit their spots and they know how to pitch."
The first baseman also said balls come off the bat faster, leaving fielders less time to react. He dropped what could have been an inning-ending double play in the sixth, although McKimmy came out to argue that Chesley held onto the ball long enough.
But despite some mistakes and nine losses over the last ten games, McKimmy said his young players have done the right things to ensure this summer will be a valuable learning experience. Although it's far from ideal to field such an inexperienced lineup and cycle through more than 60 players in one summer, McKimmy believes "getting thrown into the fire" can sometimes be the best way to get better.
Yakima Valley will close out its season with a rubber game against Walla Walla Sunday night at 7 p.m.