It was a first for LSU freshman right-hander Zack Hess when he entered Tuesday’s game against UL-Lafayette with runners on second and third base and one out — as in, the first time in his life.
Hess had been a starter at every level of his baseball career. This was his first appearance as a reliever, his first time entering an inning with men on base.
He passed this test — one he has practically never studied for — with flying colors, striking out the next two batters to end the inning.
“You could see last night why I wanted to move Zack Hess to the bullpen,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “You can see what he’s capable of doing.”
As LSU (23-11, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) welcomes Ole Miss (21-12, 6-6) to town for a three-game series, it is still trying to figure out where it stands with its bullpen.
But after seeing Hess thrive in his first white-knuckle role, and after seeing closer Hunter Newman show few ill-effects from a back injury that cost him several weeks, the Tigers look very close to having their bullpen assembled the way they want it.
It starts and ends with Hess.
Mainieri is confident in Newman, a fifth-year senior who is game-tested in the closer’s role. He knows he can turn the ball over to Newman in the ninth with a one-run lead and not bat an eye.
“Where would we be without (Newman)?” Mainieri said. “I turned to my son (Tuesday) night in the eighth inning and said, ‘Thank God we’ve got Newman available tonight.’ ”
So Mainieri works backward. How does LSU get to Newman, bridging the gap between a starting pitcher and the closer?
“What happens when you have a guy that you feel you can really count on like that, you start counting your way back from the ninth inning to get to that point,” Mainieri said.
The eighth inning belongs to sophomore right-hander Caleb Gilbert, who has been outstanding this season (except for a blown save in the series finale against Texas A&M). In his 13 appearances out of the bullpen, 10 have resulted in scoreless innings.
Hess showed Tuesday that he’s also capable of bridging that gap and keeping a tight lead intact to hand off to Newman. The key is his swing and miss stuff that has generated 38 strikeouts in 31 innings this season.
“We don’t have a lot of pure strikeout type of pitchers coming out of the bullpen,” Mainieri said. “We’ve got a lot of strike-throwers that are going to work fast and put the ball in play, but I think Hess is a guy who can come out of the bullpen and strike some batters out. That can be an asset for us.”
Hess began the season working where he was most comfortable: as a starting pitcher. He served as LSU’s midweek starter — a clearly defined role LSU has not frequently had in Mainieri’s tenure — but that experiment was tossed out the window a few weeks ago.
Hess went where he was needed most, and he also allowed LSU to use its midweek games as an opportunity to keep several other relievers sharp without Hess eating up five or six innings.
“For the best interest of our team, he needed to go to the bullpen, and he was 100-percent supportive of that,” Mainieri said.
The hardest part of the transition for Hess might’ve been getting used to the short amount of time he has to warm up — especially in situations like Tuesday when the inning went from in control to chaotic in a blink.
“The big thing is just being focused from the get-go, being locked in and not letting those runs come across,” Hess said. “In the bullpen I threw 10 pitches to get ready.
“That’s a good one to build off of, as far as my experience goes coming out of the bullpen. Hopefully I can repeat that.”