Richmond’s Chance Taylor hits in the batting cage during practice Wednesday in Richmond. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

It’s hard enough to hit a baseball on a good day. For hitters that haven’t seen live pitching, or at best limited live pitching, since the summer of 2019, the start of the 2021 high school baseball season could be frustrating.

“We had a scrimmage at Orono. You could tell the first few times through the order were a little rough,” Hall-Dale coach Kyle Bishop said.

High school baseball teams are back on the diamond this season, and they’ll see a few changes. The biggest is the placement of the home plate umpire. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the umpire calling balls and strikes will be positioned behind and to the side of the pitching mound. Not only does this change the view of the plate, but umpires could have a harder time seeing balls down either foul line. Coaches have been told when in doubt, umpires will rule a ball foul.

After missing the entire 2020 season, it’s a concession the Maine baseball community is willing to make.

“I’ve played a lot of baseball. There’s no sense arguing with (umpires). They’ll miss some and they’ll give you some,” Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc said.

“That’s just an adjustment we have to make. I don’t think where the umpire is matters. We’re happy to play,” Richmond coach Ryan Gardner said.

With umpires making calls at an angle this season, some coaches are stressing fastball and changeup placement to their pitchers, rather than curveballs.

“From coaches and umpires I talk to, they aren’t seeing the hook,” Madison coach Sean Bean said.

“I’m telling my players they really need to expand the (strike) zone with two strikes. I’m usually saying expand it 4 inches all the way around. Now I’m saying 6 to 8 (inches). We’re seeing things called a strike if they hit the mitt, even if it’s a foot outside,” Messalonskee coach Eric Palin said.

Cony coach Don Plourde said he doesn’t expect to ask his pitchers to throw fewer curves this season.

“A lot of times when you throw curveballs you’re not trying to throw them for strikes anyway. You’re just trying to mix up speeds,” Plourde said.

Right now, Plourde’s team is dealing with an issue that many teams could be faced with this season. A COVID-19 outbreak has the Rams on pause. Plourde looked at the situation with glass half full attitude. It’s happening early, rather than later in the season, and the forecast for Friday and Saturday includes snow and rain, not conducive to getting on the ballfield, anyway.

“It’s kind of to be expected at some point this season. We’re looking at it as a positive thing. We miss four practices, but we get some rest,” Plourde said.

LeBlanc said he recently has two players pulled off the bus just before the team left for a scrimmage at Waterville, due to contact tracing. Lawrence coach Rusty Mercier said he currently has six quarantined due to contact tracing from an AAU basketball game.

Maranacook pitcher Alex Trafton throws during practice March 24 in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

An open tournament means teams can ride out pauses and take their time mixing and matching lineups and pitching rotations. Gardner said he hopes to see schedule flexibility during the season. For example, if his Bobcats and School A are each scheduled to play School B during a week, but School B is on a COVID-19 pause, why shouldn’t Richmond and School A be allowed to play each other?

“I like the idea of an open tournament. I’ve got a lot of things I want to see because we haven’t played. You’re not chasing Heal points. Your school might not even have the outbreak. I hope we get a little inventive with what we’re doing,” Gardner said.

Richmond has a small roster, just 11 players, and has petitioned the Maine Principals’ Association to allow eighth graders to play varsity. Richmond has been a perennial power in Class D South, reaching the regional championship game six times since 2010, with state crowns in 2010 and 2018. The Bobcats will play a schedule of Class D and Class C teams, including Mountain Valley Conference opponents Spruce Mountain, Telstar and Carrabec.

Richmond’s Connor Vashon fields a ball during practice Wednesday in Richmond. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

That regional scheduling sets up interesting cross-class matchups. Class C Madison, for example, is scheduled to play Class B Waterville twice and Class A Mt. Blue once.

While preseason scouting reports are harder this year, with everybody still unsure of exactly what other teams have back after a year off, Plourde expects the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference to offer few surprises.

“I think the usual schools will be in it,” Plourde said. “It’s a pitching-dominant game right now. If you’ve got three kids who can pitch, you’re going to be in a lot of games.”

Plourde’s team will be led by seniors Kyle Douin (pitcher-first base), Bobby Stolt (pitcher-second base), Eli Bezanson (catcher-outfield) and Isaac Gammon (middle infield). At Messalonskee, first-year coach Palin likes his team’s depth. Led by shortstop Andrew Mayo and catcher Joe Ardito, the Eagles averaged 11 runs per game in three scimmages.

“I have 10 guys I’m willing to pitch against anybody,” Palin said. “We’ll be aggressive on the bases.”

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