Going forward by moving backward

Briana Rios is 40 feet from the plate when she starts her windup. By the time the Central Catholic High pitcher releases the ball, it's 35 feet and she has both arms extended.

She has only a fraction of a second to react should the batter hit a line drive back at her — barely time to blink, to say nothing of catching the ball.

It worries not only pitchers, but parents and coaches, too.

"There's so little time to react, the pitcher isn't always in position to defend herself," said Jill Virchis, a one-time pitching star at Downey High and one of the Stanislaus District's top pitching coaches.

Rios dons a mask when she is pitching, but that wouldn't have helped Sonora's Carson Craven this season. The Wildcats' pitcher took a line drive off her pitching hand, dislocating her thumb and sending her to the hospital.

Others have been struck in the leg, stomach and the face. While no organization keeps statistics of how many times pitchers are hit, or how severe the injury, it's clear that the situation is getting worse.

That convinced the National Federation of State High School Associations to make a change, moving the rubber 3 feet farther from the plate.

The move has long been debated and was OK'd this year, in part, because of positive results in Florida and Oregon. Florida pitchers have thrown from 43 feet for four years, and Oregon went to the longer distance this past season.

The national federation surveyed coaches in those states and found strong support to make it permanent. Statistics indicate more balls were hit into play from the 43-foot rubber. States can make the change immediately or wait for the 2010-2011 school year.

California has yet to decide when it will change. The California Interscholastic Federation will talk to its section commissioners before deciding, CIF spokesman Quwan Spears said Wednesday.

The change should have little impact on a pitchers' approach, Virchis believes.

"College pitchers are 43 feet from the plate and 18-under gold pitchers also are 43 feet," said Virchis, referring to the top level of competitive travel ball. "I tell my pitchers that it won't affect their mechanics.

"The release point will be the same whether they are 43 feet or 40 feet away. It will be more mental than anything."

The additional 3 feet also will help the batter, the national federation says, giving them a few extra feet to recognize a pitch and then to swing.

Lack of hitting is a concern: Top pitchers average 14 or more strikeouts a game, and elite playoff games typically generate two or fewer runs.

While Virchis applauds the longer distance, she says the best way to ensure the safety of pitchers — and corner infielders who often crowd the plate to protect against bunts — is to alter the bats.

Lightweight metals have led to thinner walls on bats, and the reduced weight allows hitters to generate more force when striking the ball. Combined with the velocity of the ball as it reaches the plate, it can be a powerful explosion.

"The (aluminum) bats they're using today are so alive that the pitcher doesn't always get an opportunity to defend herself," said Virchis, who runs Fundamental Pitching in Oakdale. "You can back the pitcher up all you want, but so long as these bats are so powerful, it's won't solve the problem.

"More players seem to wear masks, sometimes the whole infield has them, but that can also lead to a false sense of security. It's a big safety issue."

Softball is the No. 4 high school sport in the nation for individuals and schools, according to the federation, with 371,293 girls playing at 14,846 schools.