LSU coach Paul Mainieri initially pegged Hunter Newman as someone who had a future as a starting pitcher for LSU.
As Newman is set to embark on his fifth and final year at LSU, he has started a grand total of three games, and none since 2013. Though Mainieri called the circumstances that closed that starter’s path “unfortunate,” he might be happy things didn’t go according to plan.
That’s because Mainieri knows he has someone he can turn to with complete confidence when the games are at their most tense. With a loaded 2017 team that carries high preseason expectations, the coach is glad he doesn’t have to concern himself over the ninth inning on Day 1.
Newman, the once-promising starter, is now entrenched as the closer.
“I don’t have to convince him he’s good,” Mainieri said. “I don’t have to talk him into handling the role, he knows he can handle the role. When I’m bringing him in, I’m bringing in the wily veteran that is just like, ‘OK, give me the ball, I’m ready.’ ”
He’s taken a long route to being the wily veteran.
Newman missed the entire 2014 season with a bone spur on his throwing shoulder called a Bennett’s lesion. For some, the injury is asymptomatic, but for Newman, the pain when he threw was too much to bear.
“It sucked,” Newman said. “Every time you throw, just pain, the whole shoulder.”
Newman had a choice. He could either try to play through the injury or go through corrective surgery, which would require him to miss an entire season.
He opted for surgery, which wasn’t an easy decision. It was the first time in his life he’d ever gone under the knife.
“We lost him for the year,” Mainieri said. “I wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing to be honest with you. I remember our trainer saying it’s a matter of how much he can tolerate.”
Newman said it took him a full year to get back to feeling normal. He went away to play summer ball after the 2014 season and still didn’t feel right.
But when he came back that fall, he said he felt like he had “a different arm.”
He also had a new role. Mainieri shifted him into the bullpen before the 2015 season with fantastic results. The 6-foot-3 right-hander gave up just two earned runs in 36.2 innings as he became a trusted arm in late-inning situations.
When the Tigers were looking for a replacement for the ineffective Caleb Gilbert at closer midway through last season, Mainieri remembered thinking about Newman’s successes as a late-inning reliever in 2015 and saying to himself, “Man, do we have anybody better than this guy coming out of the bullpen? Why not use him at the end instead of the eighth inning?”
After recording his first save of the season on April 8, Newman posted a 1.52 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 23.2 innings. He finished the year with eight saves in his final 15 appearances.
Heading into the 2017 season, there is no doubt about what his role will be.
“It just gives you that confidence that coach has in you, knowing that he has to trust in you to get the last three outs, because usually those are the hardest three outs to get in a game,” Newman said.
Newman doesn’t possess the overpowering repertoire usually associated with closers. He relies on his sharp breaking ball and changeup to offset his 89-91 mph fastball.
What he does have, Mainieri said, is the right mentality for the high-pressure situations he’ll inevitably find himself in.
“He’s seen it all, he knows every situation and he’s a confident guy,” Mainieri said. “He knows he can throw whatever pitch he wants for a strike any time. Whatever (pitching coach Alan Dunn) calls, he’s going to throw it, and he’s going to throw it where he wants to throw it.”