There was no cell phone service when Jesse Stallings stepped off an airplane for his summer as an Anchorage Glacier Pilot.
“I felt like I was in another world,” Stallings said of his new Alaskan surroundings. “Never been anywhere, don’t know anybody here. I was completely lost.”
An enigmatic freshman season preceded this trip. He had 11 saves through the first 29 games of his collegiate career. Pundits presumed he would shatter Matty Ott and Chris Cotton’s single-season saves record. Stallings needed just six more saves to do so.
He recorded one. Southeastern Conference hitters were unforgiving to the redshirt freshman who kept his fastball in the upper 90s but had little in the way of secondary pitches. More troubling, Stallings said, were mechanics issues. His stride was short in his delivery, and he neglected to keep his shoulders square when throwing the baseball.
“I kind of flew open, and it would cause me to come off and the ball to go right back over the plate,” Stallings said. “You could probably see me throw a pitch (last season) that starts outside that comes over the middle of the plate. When it does that, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw, they’re going to hit it.”
Stallings, named Monday one of 70 relievers to the Stopper of the Year preseason watch list, used his entire Alaskan summer to correct the mishaps. He peppered coaches with questions and advice for elongating the stride and staying square, taking notes as each spoke.
Mechanics now more consistent and with the aid of a former Tiger’s slider, Stallings has been among the most impressive relievers to emerge from a crowded, veteran bullpen that LSU coach Paul Mainieri will slowly allow to sort itself out.
“Early in the year, I found it’s best to keep running guys out there and let them earn their roles,” Mainieri said. “And if somebody develops in a way that gives us more confidence that he can handle the last outs of a game more than somebody else, then we’re going to do it. … We don’t really have a guy designated to be the closer right now.”
Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn have mapped out the late innings of the Cincinnati series, and the 10th-year coach said he’s not restricting relievers to one inning and plans to see as many as possible.
Stallings is the most imposing — his fastball hit 97 mph at times this fall — but bright freshman Caleb Gilbert has shown poise, lanky junior Parker Bugg employs a dangerous backdoor slider from his high arm slot, and veteran Hunter Newman had a 0.49 ERA in 36.2 innings last season.
Home for Christmas break and unhappy with the splitter he was throwing in the fall, Stallings learned a slider from former LSU pitcher Russ Springer -- the 18-year Major League veteran and Alexandria native. He’s since paired that with the splitter to form a more formidable repertoire and impress throughout spring camp.
“You could have the greatest stuff but if you can’t command a fastball, you can’t pitch,” Dunn said. “I thought Jesse was much more in pitcher’s counts, so when you do that, that makes his ability to throw that slider with a lot more conviction and you’re going to get a lot more results on it.”
Dunn predicates his entire staff’s success on their fastball command. Bugg, for instance, saw it disappear throughout a disappointing fall and beginning of spring, but has looked better in the last two weeks.
Gilbert, a 4.0 petroleum engineering student and Perfect Game All-American, has worked his way into the conversation using pristine command and a slider of his own.
“You can’t make many mistakes,” Gilbert said of his transition to the college game. “When you get guys ahead, you have to step on their throat and get them out … In high school, you can get away with so much, but now that I’m here, I’m pitching off my fastball, commanding it and getting ahead in counts.”
Gilbert can’t specify his role. Neither can Stallings. No reliever can.
“It makes you feel good,” Stallings says, “because you know you’re going to have guys getting outs, whether you’re the guy doing it or someone else is.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter @Chandler_Rome