Christian Helsel is very comfortable in the spotlight and relishes the opportunity to carry the load.
When Altoona's senior right-hander likely takes the mound this afternoon when the Mountain Lions take on Council Rock South in the PIAA Class AAAA high school baseball semifinals, though, he'll be able to go out and concentrate just on throwing the best game he can. He won't have the added stress of feeling he has to do it all on his own, because, where pitching is concerned, he has a lot of help waiting in the wings.
"We weren't expecting to have this deep of a pitching staff coming into the season, but it turns out we do. It really takes the pressure off of me to put it all on my shoulders,'' Helsel said. "Even if I do have a bad day, we have three or four other pitchers that can come in and take control of the game.''
A question mark heading into the campaign, pitching and defense have been the hallmarks of the Lions' run to their first-ever trip to the state final four. The team heads into today's noon first pitch at Hershey High School with a sterling team earned-run average of 2.24.
Helsel, an Ole Miss recruit, gets a lot of the attention, but he wasn't even in the top three in innings pitched on the staff entering the District 6 playoffs and he just moved into second with his complete game win over Seneca Valley a week ago. Junior Ben Wyland, the winning pitcher in the quarterfinals, has thrown 47 2/3 innings this spring. Alec Lytle and Jason Douglas, two juniors who have yet to throw in the state playoffs, have thrown 30 2/3 and 24 innings this season, respectively.
None of them has given up more hits than innings or has an ERA of 3.00. Lytle even earned the team's most improved player award.
"Going into the season, we wanted to compete for a district championship, but we knew our pitching was a question mark, having lost most of our pitching from the year before. But, as it's turned out, our pitching has pretty much carried us,'' Altoona coach Tom Smith said. "Lytle and Douglas have given us some serious innings, and that's been a huge help.
"Unfortunately, when you are pitching every four days and your pitchers are doing so well, guys like Lytle and Douglas are on standby, and we haven't had to use them, and that's tough on them, because they want to be out on that mound. But we're keeping them sharp, and they're ready to go.''
Council Rock South coach Greg Young understands Smith's situation. The Golden Hawks have five pitchers who are considered very comparable in ability, and he thinks that kind of pitching depth is a big advantage this time of year, even if the games and innings aren't as numerous.
"Every year we've been in the playoffs, we've always seen the teams that get a little bit further have two or even three guys that can compete like that on the mound,'' said Young, a player at Penn State in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "This year, we seem to have four or even five guys that we can run out there.''
Smith gave assistant coach Troy Pincherri a lot of the credit for developing this year's pitching staff. A catcher on the Lions' 2001 state semifinalist team, Pincherri worked at the junior high level last year.
"Early in the preseason, I tried to stress to them to not overthrow, work on mechanics, and, most importantly, work on location, hitting the outside corner and the inside corner. Once we got outside, we continued to focus on location as well as getting ahead of hitters,'' said Pincherri, who learned the craft of handling pitchers from his father, Lou, and Jim Klausman in youth baseball. "I caught Scotty Chirdon in high school, who, his senior year, was like 11-0. He had great control. He wasn't very fast. He didn't throw hard, but he always hit his spots. That kind of showed me that you don't have to throw hard to get batters out at the high school level.''
Smith and Pincherri went against the grain of conventional coaching by avoiding the temptation to overdo things with the hard-throwing Helsel, also the most experienced pitcher with significant varsity mound time going back to his freshman year. Helsel didn't throw more than five innings in a game all season until the 6-AAAA championship game against Central Mountain; he pitched almost entirely in relief, amassing five saves.
"The last couple of years he had kind of tired as the year went on and developed some minor arm troubles, so we thought it might be best to start him slow this year, then maybe he would be more available at the end of the season,'' Pincherri said. It turned out pretty good so far.
Now that the playoffs have rolled around, Helsel has thrown consecutive complete games giving up 12 hits over 14 innings while striking out 18. He goes into today with a 1.62 ERA.
"I feel like I thrive on the pressure. I like to win the game for my team. That's what I can do right now. I built up my arm strength throughout the year and can throw complete games. I love it,'' Helsel said.
Helsel will be tested today by a Council Rock South lineup that has a reputation of being able to hit all the way through. The Golden Hawks are 21-2.
"We're ready to go. We've been getting good hitting, good pitching, good fielding,'' Smith said. "We think we should be able to compete with anybody. It's just a matter of playing well.''