CLINTON — On paper, the LumberKings' pitching staff resembles a ball of yarn at the end of its rope: it's still rolling, but how much further can it go?
The team has dealt with a number of key losses to its best arms this season. First half star Dylan Unsworth went down prior to the All-Star Break and is currently on a rehab assignment. First half closer Grady Wood got a call-up before the second half restart. Season-long ace Tyler Pike was shut down three weeks ago with soreness in his power-packed south paw and has only just returned to the lineup. Dominican Victor Sanchez — July's dazzling no-hit wonder — missed about a month for bereavement, and 5-2 reliever Matt Vedo threw his last pitch in June.
On top of all that, Scott DeCecco, who led the team in wins and innings pitched (132.1, good for second in the Midwest League), got a call up on Monday. It forced the LumberKings to hand the ball to newcomer Steven Ewing fresh out of Short Season Everett to recoup DeCecco's start this week.
Yet here they are in the final stretch amid a 20-game marathon. Clinton has a three-game lead in the playoff hunt and won nine of the last 10. Pike and Sanchez have climbed to second and fifth, respectively, among league ERAs, and a season-long reliever, David Holman, has carved himself a slot among the starters, picking up his second straight win on Wednesday.
The tactical task of juggling innings falls on pitching coach Andrew Lorraine.
"When it's your turn, you do the job," Lorraine said. "That's the attitude I want them to have. The game is a culmination of many things. Preparation. But when they're out there, it's their time to go."
Since the final stretch can be so taxing, Lorraine switched to a six-man starting rotation with two players sharing a start every five days. While it gives starters an extra day to rest, the approach is also asking a lot of the bullpen, which has dwindled to six healthy bodies.
"This does a couple of things. We're able to have a couple guys out there who are only going two or three innings," Lorraine said. "It's a constant routine. Most pitchers prefer to pitch on the fifth day. They don't like the extra day.
"We've used one less guy in the bullpen. My term out there is 'who's my seventh man?' Any day it could be a guy getting that extra inning. It puts a lot more on the bullpen, and they take that on themselves to their credit."
A major factor Lorraine uses in determining how long he leaves a pitcher in is observing, "how hard a player works to get outs." It's a deeper sense than just tracking the pitch count.
"Everyone has a limit," he said. "Most guys won't get over 105 pitches. If they work really hard to get to, say, five innings, they're probably going to be done. But if they have an easy five innings, we might leave them in for seven, eight or nine. It's more about how hard you're working, the balance between easy versus hard."
The LumberKings have received deep outings from Holman, who has averaged over six innings per game through four starts in August. He's 3-0 with a 1.75 ERA and 13 strikeouts. The same is true for Sanchez — 4-0, 6.55 innings per start in August with a 2.36 ERA. Ewing performed well in his debut, going five innings on three strikeouts during a 7-4 Clinton win on Aug. 20.
Richard Vargas has gotten the ball late and delivered two saves and a win in three of his last four appearances. Charles Kaalekahi has eaten 21 innings this month, and the plan is to steadily work up Pike's pitch count as he eases through the final two weeks.
"It felt really good to get back out there," said Pike, who returned to the rotation for two innings on Aug. 19. "I think they have me going one inning more on every start I make. If we make the playoffs we'll see what happens from there."
Even though the cupboard appears bare and Clinton has three pitchers listed on the disabled list, the team appears to be getting the most out of its arms.
"We haven't had a guy go back-to-back days all year. Not because we can't," Lorraine said. "It hasn't happened yet, but it probably will."
The LumberKings have 12 games remaining — roughly two more starts for each rotation man. They've built a comfy lead in the playoff chase and might even give current second seed Quad Cities a scare; Clinton trails the River Bandits by 2.5 games.
The biggest challenge, said Lorraine, is keeping his pitchers' eyes on the end game.
"This time of year, guys are thinking about a lot of stuff," he said. "They're tired, they're thinking about the postseason. Thinking about the offseason. The main thing is you want them to get better. When they get better, all the good things happen too."