At what point does a college baseball pitcher transition from a freshman to a veteran?
It could be when that freshman starts shaking off a quality veteran catcher on pitch calls — and UL-Lafayette’s freshmen pitchers are starting to do that more and more.
That’s not to say that the four Ragin’ Cajuns freshmen, who will play a key role in this weekend’s NCAA Baton Rouge super regional, have lost any confidence in catcher Nick Thurman. Quite the opposite, actually.
“He’s one of the best defensive catchers in the nation by far,” closer Dylan Moore said of Thurman. “He’s great back there.”
Gunner Leger, UL-Lafayette’s Friday night starter through the second half of the season, added: “It’s huge to have Thurm back there — especially when you have a lot of young arms like we did, and with the experience he has.”
That doesn’t mean they won’t disagree on pitches, even as coach Tony Robichaux lets his junior catcher call his own game.
Moore shook off an off-speed call and recorded a key fastball strikeout in Monday’s NCAA regional final 5-2 win over Houston. Second-day starter Evan Guillory steered away from fastball calls and went with sliders in some clutch situations in a 2-1 Saturday win over Houston.
“I was glad to hear (Moore) say in the press conference that he was shaking Thurman and going to something else,” Robichaux said. “I went to the mound Saturday, and me an Thurm and Guillory were talking, and Evan says let’s start doubling up on sliders when he misses with a fastball. Man, that’s music to my ears to hear freshmen talk like that.”
Robichaux has heard that a lot this season. In his 29 years as a collegiate head coach, he’s never had three true freshmen as his weekend starting pitchers. Throw in Moore as a true freshman closer, and that, suddenly, is a very young staff.
That freshman group has combined for a 21-9 record and a 3.00 ERA in 42 starts, and Moore has a school-record 13 saves. The threesome of Leger, Guillory and Wyatt Marks figure once again to start — not necessarily in that order — against LSU this weekend with a trip to the College World Series on the line.
“You just have to stay calm, take deep breaths and remember it’s just another game,” said Marks, who was throwing at St. Thomas More High one season ago. “You can’t think things differently and change the way you pitch. You pitch the way you have been all year.”
That way was good enough — especially in the second half of the season. All three dropped their ERAs over the final six weeks, with Marks going 6-1 with a 3.32 and Guillory still unbeaten at 5-0 with a 4.05.
Leger, pitching against the Sun Belt Conference’s best on Friday nights, is 6-4 but has the lowest ERA among the starters at 2.87.
Moore has a stellar 1.42 ERA with two saves in last weekend’s regional, and he pulled off a rarity with two saves in one day in must-win situations during the Sun Belt tournament.
Guillory was the only freshman starter in the opening weekend of the season, but Leger and Marks worked their way into the rotation before the midpoint of the year.
“We’re all in the same situation,” Guillory said. “We’d never been in a weekend rotation before, but we’re all doing it together so we help each other out in whatever situation we’re in. Last weekend, every win we had was a quality win, so we’re going to keep playing the way we have been. Nothing’s changed.”
Robichaux and the freshman group all credit Thurman, who has caught 55 of the team’s 63 games including all but two since the midpoint of the season.
“Sometimes you get in a rhythm with him and man, it’s great,” Leger said. “And sometimes you just don’t have a pitch and don’t have any confidence in a pitch, and he’ll be there. When I started throwing early in the season, whatever he put down I was throwing, but now we have a good connection.”
Moore added: “Coach Robe says he’d rather us throw what we want with conviction than throw what someone else wants halfway. But Thurm knows coach’s system so well, it just gives you a ton of confidence.”
Robichaux said if a freshman can shake off a catcher like Thurman and have a real reason for it, that freshman quickly turns into more of a veteran.
Robichaux was quick to point out that “veteran” is still a relative term, even though freshman pitchers have started 42 of 63 games this year.
“Out of fairness to them, they’re still freshmen,” Robichaux said, “because every next step is a new challenge for them. First it was opening day, then it was the season, then it was a three-game series challenge. After that, it was getting on a plane and fighting the travel that you don’t fight in high school, the ups and downs and role reversals.
“Then getting in the conference tournament was new to them, because if you lose you go home. All year, you knew you were still pitching next weekend. We had to see how they were going to react with a regional on the road, and now we’ll have to see how they react at LSU in a super regional. Maybe we can stop calling them freshmen when we get to Omaha, if we’re fortunate enough to do that.”