HOOVER, Ala. — If you were wondering how the LSU Tigers would inject meaning into what so many were calling meaningless trip to Southeastern Conference tournament, the nation’s No. 1 team figured out a way in inning No. 1 Wednesday against Auburn.
One is the position in the LSU starting rotation Jared Poché has occupied almost this entire season. One is the number of innings he lasted here against Auburn, the shortest outing of his career by far (the previous shortest was 3.2).
As Poché made the frustrated trek back to LSU’s first-base dugout, he no doubt left a string of angry oaths in his wake. It’s a wake that also included questions about the Tigers’ pitching staff with the NCAA tournament looming.
The fact that LSU climbed out of the smoking hole Poché dug in the first inning to throw Auburn in it with a stunning 9-8 comeback victory was an impressive feat, an enthralling though in some ways smaller story.
The big, long-range story is the LSU pitching staff, particularly the starting rotation, has devolved into to something more unpredictable.
Just about every LSU pitcher — even unbeaten SEC freshman of the year Alex Lange — has had ups and downs throughout this remarkable 2015 season.
But in his last three starts, Poché has gone skidding off the mound in an unsettling way, lasting a total of 10.2 innings, giving up 14 runs and 19 hits.
Once again, LSU was forced to go to bullpen arm after bullpen arm in its series (or rather tournament) opener. It’s the antithesis of what you want out of your No. 1 hurler. He’s supposed to conserve your relievers, not require them to come streaming to the disaster area like the Red Cross.
The is an LSU team that has already spent most of its season searching for a third weekend starter, though the Tigers seem to have unearthed one in Austin Bain, the scheduled starter for Thursday’s game against Florida or Arkansas. This is an LSU team that has already had to abandon its notion of Jesse Stallings being its bullpen ace, despite being tied for the SEC with 12 saves entering the tournament.
But for LSU’s postseason hopes, it’s imperative Poché reacquires his pitching mojo.
In retrospect, it’s remarkable LSU cobbled together the SEC’s best regular-season earned run average (2.91) despite some shaky pitching performances at times.
LSU also came to Hoover sporting the SEC’s best batting average as well (.322), armed with an aggressive lineup that will hit and run and hit and run against anyone.
In the NCAA tournament, though, if you go deep enough, there will be a game when offense comes up zeroes. In those games, pitching has to carry the day.
Maybe that day will be when Lange is throwing and he’s at his freshly scrubbed best, with a breaking ball that drops through three time zones and a heater that can melt glass.
But someone else will have to rise to the task. You can’t fly to Omaha on just one engine.
You don’t have to have two pitchers like Lange to win the College World Series, but you do need someone who’s at least a reasonable backup singer. Not someone who looks like they’ve been throwing batting practice the last three weeks.
Poché’s stay was so short (35 pitches) that coach Paul Mainieri didn’t rule out the prospect of his return should LSU play the weekend, most likely in Sunday’s championship game.
After that, Poché’s next start is likely to be next Friday against whatever fourth-seeded sacrificial lamb the NCAA selection committee sends on a forced march to the Baton Rouge regional.
Perhaps that game will be the tonic Poche needs to get back on track, to return to being the plucky pitcher he’s been most of the season.
Mainieri is counting on it.
“Jared Poché is the ultimate competitor,” Mainieri said.
“I’m not going to give up on the guy. He’s still going to be vital to our pitching staff. Every time someone counts Jared Poché out, he comes back and pitches a terrific game.”
The time for Poché to do that is at hand. It’s not a luxury for LSU, like a new Apple watch. It’s a must-have.
Time is running short.