Alex Lange doesn’t often show emotion when pitching.
He’s quiet, stoic and relaxed. There are no huge fist pumps, no celebratory punches, no loud roars.
There are leg kicks, though – at least one.
Moments after Lange’s final pitch Saturday left his hand, the freshman’s left leg kicked high into the air in a brief celebratory outburst for the called third strike.
Lange’s pitch – and kick – signified so much more than its result: an inning-ending strikeout that stranded two runners.
The third strike fastball was clocked at 94 miles an hour. It was his 100th pitch.
“I don’t even look at him like he’s a freshman anymore,” coach Paul Mainieri said after LSU’s 2-1 loss to Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals.
LSU has its all-star rookie back. Mainieri, for the first time in a public setting, admitted that Lange is the unquestioned ace for the Tigers during his postgame press conference on Saturday beneath the bowels of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
The Missourian’s seven-inning scoreless outing in the loss to the Gators further proves that he’s shook off some mid-season lulls.
He’s hurling in a similar fashion to his first seven weeks, before elbow tightness knocked him off track for a month. It couldn’t come at a batter time for LSU (48-10)
The nation’s top-ranked team, LSU will host a regional for the 23rd time in school history, it was announced Sunday night.
The Tigers are anticipating being one of the NCAA’s top eight national seeds, too. Those, in addition to the full bracket, are revealed at 11 a.m. Monday on ESPNU. Some believe LSU is on pace to grab the first-ever NCAA overall No. 1 national seed.
Either way, the playoffs are here.
“This is it,” Mainieri said. “You win or you put the bats away.”
LSU enters what Mainieri calls the third and final phase of the season with its 6-foot-3, 200-pound ace throwing just about as well as he has all season.
Mainieri would “like” to pitch Lange in the second game of the NCAA regional on Saturday – a game often referred to as “all the marbles game.” The coach said he’d prefer to “pitch off” for the opener against a No. 4 seed, saving Lange for that Game 2 and Jared Poche, presumably, for a regional final.
On Saturday, Lange shut out the nation’s No. 6-ranked team in his seven innings, allowing five hits, striking out seven and walking six – the only downer during a sparkling performance.
Lange’s fastball hovered 92-94 mph, hitting 95 multiple times – an increase from his velocities of just three to four weeks ago.
With LSU nursing a one-run lead, Lange stranded the bases loaded twice and left two on base in a pressure-packed seventh inning with that strikeout. He kicked his leg and strutted off the mound as the more than 6,000 LSU fans roared their approval.
What did Lange, always a self critic, want to talk about afterward? The walks.
“I put myself in those situations,” Lange said. “Had way too many walks today. Shouldn’t have to pitch in those tight situations as I did. That’s the time you have to compete and really rise to the occasion and get the job done. I feel like I did a good job of that, but I’ve got tot work on not putting myself in those situations in the playoffs because if one of those hits fall, we’re in trouble.”
He got stellar performances from a defense that continues to gell.
LSU turned two 4-6-3 double plays behind Lange, and shortstop Alex Bregman nearly made spectacular play in the third that had the stadium and the internet buzzing.
A first-round projection in June’s MLB Draft, Bregman chased down a ball behind second base, flipped the ball – behind his back – from his glove to his hand and just missed getting the out at first.
The double plays – Foster-Bregman-Chinea – were critical. The first negated a leadoff single in the fifth inning. The second one ended the sixth inning and incited a thunderous roar from a partial Tigers crowd.
The spotlight afterward, though, shined on Lange and his return to that snazzy form.
Lange has allowed a combined eight hits and two runs in his last three starts – a span of 19 innings – and his ERA dropped to 1.94 after Saturday’s game. He’s struck out 24 and walked 11 during that span.
He’s pushed aside four consecutive mid-season starts that might have had some worried.
Coaches rested him for the series against Auburn in mid-April after he felt some elbow tightness come on in a start the week before at Alabama. In four straight starts – from April 3 to May 1 – Lange had a 16-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 11 earned runs and 27 hits.
His velocity began to dip, his command was off and many wondered if he was fully 100 percent.
“You’ve seen the last two times out that his stuff has had that extra gear. Breaking balls have had that extra juice to it,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said on Friday, a day before LSU’s game against Florida. “Just getting back into being who he is. Pitchers go through periods of having a little fatigue in your arm. You just have to pitch and figure it out. That’s the thing he’s learned he – how to go out and pitch without your ‘A’ game.”
The ‘A’ game has been there recently. LSU hopes he’ll have another three starts – regional, super regionals and Omaha – like the last trio.
“He’s got the stuff,” Mainieri said, “and he’s got the composure.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.