Austin Pritcher will pack his bag for the bus trip to Columbia, making sure his baseball spikes and glove are at the ready.
But unless something very unusual happens, Pritcher — The Citadel’s best pitcher and one of its best players — will not get in the game tonight against No. 11 South Carolina.
Nor did Pritcher, a senior from James Island, appear when 5,838 fans packed Riley Park on March 19 to see the Gamecocks defeat The Citadel, 9-5, on March 19, a Tuesday night.
It’s the quandary of the Friday night starter for a mid-major baseball team. Pritcher, 3-2 with a 3.14 earned run average this season, has earned the most important job on the Bulldogs’ pitching staff — working the Friday night game to lead off the three-game weekend series that make up the Southern Conference schedule.
And yet for the mid-week games that draw the most fans, and that Citadel faithful would most love to win — against power-league teams such as two-time national champ South Carolina — weekend starters such as Pritcher are unavailable.
“I would not say it’s frustrating,” Pritcher said. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d love to go out there for one or two innings against a team like South Carolina.”
Of course, teams such as USC also save their top starters for weekend play. But in theory, the Gamecocks’ mid-week starters — tonight, they will go with sophomore right-hander Joel Seddon (1-0, 5.11 ERA) — should all be at least Pritcher’s equal.
And a win in this game means much more for a team like The Citadel than for USC.
Still, veteran Citadel coach Fred Jordan has never juggled his rotation to throw a No. 1 guy in the mid-week, and can’t imagine a scenario where he would.
“We are going to pitch our best guys on the weekend,” he said.
Why? Conference games are even more crucial in a mid-major league like the SoCon, which can’t always expect the three postseason bids it got last year.
College of Charleston coach Monte Lee firmly believes his 2012 team would not have received an at-large bid had it not tied for the SoCon regular season title. That means he could not risk even one league game in an effort to win a mid-week contest.
“You’ve got to win the league or finish in the top two,” Lee said. “So we put all our marbles into the weekend. If you pitch a No. 1 guy in the mid-week and go 2-3-4 on the weekend, you put yourself in jeopardy of not winning the league.”
Some coaches, such as Lee, will let one of their weekend starters get in his “bullpen work” of 15 or 30 pitches during a mid-week game. But Jordan doesn’t even like to do that.
“I like to throw my bullpen away from the game spotlight,” the Bulldogs’ Pritcher said. “In a game, I can’t work on all my pitches. I want to win, so I’m going to go with what’s working.”
Sometimes a rainout will give a weekend starter a chance to pitch mid-week, as it did when Charleston’s Nathan Helvey got to start against USC on March 26. But even then, Helvey was limited to 46 pitches.
“We had to keep him limited,” Lee said, “because we needed him on the weekend.”
Lee got the rare chance to throw his weekend starters against a power club last year, when the Cougars played a three-game series at Clemson. Charleston lost the first game by one run and won the third, 4-2, behind the pitching of Matt Pegler, this year’s Friday night starter.
At The Citadel, the mid-week games are sort of a rite of passage for freshmen. Pritcher and recent standouts like Matt Talley, Asher Wojciechowski and Matt Crim all pitched mid-week games as knobs before graduating to the weekend rotation. Freshman Austin Livingston (2-0, 6.48 ERA) is the likely starter tonight.
“It’s a huge challenge for a freshman,” Pritcher said. “You go from playing in your local town to pitching in front of 5,000 people against some of the best players in the country. That’s where you learn what kind of competitor you are.”
And if Pritcher and his fellow weekend starters do their jobs well enough, he will get his shot at a team like USC — in the NCAA regionals.