The recent weather may make it feel like football season, and the scoreboards on the state’s softball fields make it seem that way, too.
13-10. 11-10. 27-0. 19-0. 25-2.
Look through a scores list these days and you’re more than likely to come across numbers like those. And, yes, those are actual scores this year. Rare are the days of 2-1 games.
As a pitcher for Hardin who graduated in 2006, Sarah DeVore remembers those days. But they seem long ago to her, now in her second season as the Billings Skyview coach.
“I think everyone’s just kind of used to it being a big-hitting game now,” DeVore said earlier this week before her team departed for Great Falls for a doubleheader against the Bison, Class AA’s defending state champion. “It’s a prop to the pitchers if they keep it under five runs anymore.”
Even if players and coaches are used to it, it’s been eye-popping what’s been going on the past two seasons. On its way to a second-place finish at state last year, Billings West clubbed 47 home runs, and the Golden Bears are back to their prodigious-power ways this year. They knocked five homers in a win over Billings Senior on Tuesday.
But the Bears aren’t the only team regularly putting up double-digit runs, and coaches can point to at least a couple reasons why offense has all but taken over the game.
Three years ago, the high school pitching rubber was moved back three feet —from 40 to 43 feet from home plate — to equate the prep game with the college game. The thinking was to protect pitchers from comebackers, and several coaches felt the additional distance would actually give pitchers, especially those with a lot of ball movement, an advantage.
It hasn’t really worked out that way. Count Laurel coach Greg Branstetter as one of those coaches who’s surprised at how things have transpired.
“I kind of thought it wouldn’t make a difference at all, but it amazes me the difference it’s made,” said Branstetter, who is in his 17th season at Laurel. “I never dreamed it would make any difference. I was totally wrong. You never used to see this many home runs.”
DeVore, too, says the extra pitching distance has had an impact, adding that the younger pitchers who haven’t fully developed their games are especially hindered. DeVore points to another reason for the added offense: Hitters are simply better and now put more time into their game with offseason programs.
“I think that generally girls have just gotten stronger,” she said. “Bat technology has always been good, but if you look at all teams, it’s just fit girls. A lot of girls have gotten stronger and a lot of new techniques in the weight room have made a huge difference.”
For those wishing a return to the pitching-duel days, the remedies for the high-voltage games are few. Returning the pitching rubber to 40 feet is unlikely, as is each school moving its outfield fences back 10 feet or so. (Most schools don’t have the field space to do that, and, of course, cost is always an issue).
While some might long — no pun intended — for the low-scoring days of yore, well, the genie has been let out of the bottle. And it might never get back in.
“It was a pitching game when I was in high school,” DeVore said. “It was always a pitching battle, not an offensive battle. It’s totally opposite now.
“Until you can get pitchers that can phenomenally move the ball, each team will have multiple home-run games each season. I just think that’s the way it is.”