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Baseball: Junior high-level tournament joins reform trend with pitch limits

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Pony League's national tournament for first-year junior high school students on Friday became the latest in Japan to move toward protecting children's arms with a pitch limit.

The hardball competition's board of directors adopted an 85-pitch limit, making it the second national youth tournament in eight days to set pitch limits. On Feb. 14, Japan's national elementary school baseball tournament imposed a 70-pitch limit. On Wednesday, the national high school federation called for a study of potential measures to protect pitchers' arms.

"Elementary and junior high school students are to be nurtured. How can we protect their development?" asked Takeharu Nasu, the former chief executive of Japan's Pony Baseball association.

"The first year of junior high is when kids move from rubber baseballs to hardballs. We need lots of players and pitching limits."

Under the new rule, pitchers will not be able to face a new batter after throwing 85 pitches in a game. The association will continue to limit pitchers to seven innings in one day and a maximum of 10 innings over two consecutive days.

The subject of youth baseball pitch counts became a hot button issue in December, when Niigata Prefecture's high school baseball federation acted on its own to adopt pitch limits for this year's spring prefectural tournament. The rule would have prevented a pitcher from pitching in another inning after 100 pitches.

The national federation, however, asked Niigata to reconsider and responded by calling on a panel of experts to study the problem.

The Niigata move drew so much attention because of high school baseball's iconic status in Japan. Every game of the spring invitational championship and the national summer championship finals at historic Koshien Stadium outside Osaka are broadcast nationally.

Last summer, pitcher Kosei Yoshida became a household name in Japan for coping with a brutal workload en route to pitching unheralded Kanaashi Nogyo High School to the final. He threw 881 pitches over six games.

According to Dr. Kozo Furushima, whose research has underpinned recent reform efforts, the biggest health risk is overwork by elementary school children. By practicing for hours on end and pitching in game after game, he said, small children put their still-growing elbows at risk of injuries that will haunt them as they grow older.

"The media isn't going to talk about it but there are certainly 1,000 kids who will try to emulate Yoshida, get hurt in the process and have to give up baseball," Furushima, the chief of Keiyu Hospital's Sports Medical Center in Gunma Prefecture, told Kyodo News on Saturday.

The goal behind the reform trend is the hope that preventing injuries from elementary school on will reverse the worrying trend of young players not taking up baseball.

"We were facing a huge decline in the number of young kids playing baseball," said Osamu Shimada, an executive of the Niigata Federation. "Everyone here shares a sense of urgency. That's how we could move forward."

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