Two hours and five minutes before junior right-hander Alex Lange throws the first pitch of the 2017 LSU baseball season, he will arrive at Alex Box Stadium — not two hours before, or two hours and 10 minutes before, but precisely 125 minutes before.
There is purpose to this. Lange is a stickler when it comes to organization and precision of his pregame schedule. He needs 125 minutes to flawlessly execute his routine, and Lange is obsessed with execution — so much so that you’ll have to excuse him if he doesn’t notice you on game day.
There was a moment last year when teammate Austin Bain waved his hand in front of Lange’s face in the hours before a game. Lange was focused, but not on Bain. He stared straight ahead as if he didn’t notice his teammate.
“I don’t remember even seeing him,” Lange said. “I don’t know; I just try to block everything out and block out all the noise.”
At this stage of the day, Lange is in the zone, that place he’s created in his mind where the big, bad, nasty pitcher resides. He hopes his demeanor doesn’t hurt feelings, he apologizes if he’s ever been unnecessarily curt — but he’s not in the mood for small talk on days where he pitches.
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“He’s extremely focused,” said his adopted mother, Renée Lange. “I don’t even speak to him on game day until its over.”
Lange is a generally genial guy. He’s easy to laugh and is well-regarded around the LSU program. His coach, Paul Mainieri, described Lange as someone who is quick to offer his time and energy to those who need it, whether it’s a media member needing an hour for a photo shoot or a hospital patient in need of a pick-me-up from a star baseball player.
Just as long as that isn’t required on Friday between the time he wakes up and the moment he steps on the rubber.
“Not on game day,” Mainieri said. “I can't even talk to him on game day. If I look at him, he gives me that—”
Mainieri interrupted himself by mimicking a growling noise.
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“Scares me. I don't even want to talk to him.”
He didn’t have class on opening day, and that is by design. Lange used to schedule Friday classes, but he found he could not engage in the classroom on days he pitches the way he usually does. His class schedule this semester is loaded up Monday through Thursday, but is cleared Fridays.
Two hours and five minutes before Lange throws the first pitch of LSU’s 2017 season, what will surely be Lange’s final year in an LSU uniform, Lange will arrive to do what he does best.
“He’s a perfectionist in his craft,” Renée Lange said. “Not in everything else — his bedroom is a disaster — but he’s a perfectionist when it comes to throwing a baseball.”
2:05 TO FIRST PITCH
Lange’s first date on game days at the Box is with the stationary bicycle in the training room. He hops on and gets in an easy two mile ride to warm up his body before he meets with athletic trainer Cory Couture.
Couture is one of maybe three people who interact with Lange on any sort of personal level in the hours before Lange pitches. Once Lange gets off the bike, Couture goes to work loosening up his body, starting with the hips before moving on to Lange’s arm in a process Lange calls getting “rubbed out.”
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Lange worked like a maniac this offseason to make sure his body was in prime shape for the season. Mainieri perhaps paid Lange his highest compliment when he said, in terms of work ethic, he wasn’t quite on former LSU shortstop Alex Bregman’s level — but he was close.
“I took so much pride in my preparation, my practice and my work that I’m not going to go out there and just not have that drive and that grit,” Lange said. “That’s just the way I was raised and it’s the way I’ve always played.”
Friday starter: RHP Alex Lange (Jr.)
“I guess it translated in college — and maybe on a more extreme level because I only play once a week. ... So you take every step you can to make it right for Friday night.”
Lange spends nearly an hour with Couture, working out every kink. His body is ready by the time he makes it to the field.
His mind is next.
:57 TO FIRST PITCH
Lange believes in the power of visualization. He does not believe luck has any power whatsoever. The first thing he does when he makes it to the field is find a space where he can be alone, drape a towel over his head and close his eyes.
In his mind, he is in the wind-up, facing a right-handed batter previously identified on the scouting report. He conceptualizes the perfect pitch — a screamer of a fastball low and on the outside corner — and visualizes himself executing the pitch to perfection.
He then does the same with his entire arsenal. Every pitch, every location.
“Fastball in. Fastball up. Changeup away. Changeup down. Changeup for a ball. Fastball off the plate. Sinker in. Sinker away. Curveball for a strike. Curveball for a ball to a righty out of the windup,” Lange said.
In his mind, a left-hander steps up to the plate. He runs through the same cycle. Then he does it again to a right hander out of the stretch, and again to a left-hander out of the stretch.
Like everything in Lange’s routine, there is a purpose to this.
“Just kind of knowing and feeling what it feels like to execute the perfect pitch in that situation,” Lange said. “So when I get out there and (pitching coach Alan Dunn) calls a 1-2 breaking ball to the back foot of a lefty, I’m like, ‘Oh, I know how to do that; I’ve already gone through it in my head.’ ”
Even in this conjured reality, Lange is capable of failure. He may be obsessed with perfect execution, but he’s not blinded to the reality that true perfection is not attainable.
“If sometimes, in my mind, I’m seeing myself not executing, I do it again,” Lange said. “Sometimes you don’t execute. Sometimes you pull off, and you say, ‘Ugh, I pulled off on that one. OK. I need to stay through it.’ On the next one, you execute. It’s just mental checkpoints.”
Lange learned the price of a failure to execute the hard way last season.
He came about as close as a pitcher can come to perfection as a freshman. He was a dominating tour de force, going 12-0 with a miniscule 1.97 ERA while striking out 131 in 114 innings.
That same level was simply unsustainable. Though his strikeout, walk and opposing batting average numbers were nearly identical to his freshman season, Lange went 8-4 with a 3.79 ERA.
“By most people’s standards, that’s an outstanding year,” Mainieri said. “By the standard of going 12-0 his first year, that’s a big drop-off.”
The issue, Mainieri said, was fastball command. Lange is capable of lighting up a radar gun, but if he’s not throwing strikes and putting himself in position to use his swing-and-miss breaking ball, his repertoire becomes more predictable and hittable.
As the saying goes: That’s baseball.
“One or two pitches here can dictate the outcome of the game,” Dunn said. “All of a sudden, now you look and he’s lost two or three games. What’s wrong? Baseball. That’s what happens.”
Renée Lange warned her son before his sophomore season not to expect the same level of success.
Everything that could go right in Lange’s freshman season did, she said. The opposite was bound to be true at some point.
“It wasn’t because he was perfect (his freshman year), although his record looks like he was,” Renée Lange said. “It wasn’t that. It was that everything aligned that year. We couldn’t have asked for any better luck, and I’m going to call it luck, because everything happened just like you’d script it to happen if you could.
“By the law of averages, next year you’re going to have to get ready because this one was just stellar. ... Next season it may have to average out. It was the exact same Alex; it’s just that the luck wasn’t going in his favor.”
Luck. Lange bristles. He doesn’t believe in the thing. He spits the word out like it is something rotten.
“Someone could say, ‘Oh, he got lucky his freshman year and last year was bad luck,’ ” Lange said. “No, last year I didn’t friggin’ execute my pitches with runners on second and third with one out.
“... In my freshman year, I got that strikeout or a fly ball or a ground ball in the infield and Bregman makes a play. Last year, I gave up a bleeder base hit. I didn’t execute. That’s the bottom line. I didn’t execute in crunch-time situations.”
So, with the towel over his head, Lange visualizes himself executing every possible scenario in his mind. If he doesn’t get it right, he does it again. After five minutes of this, the towel comes off and his eyes open.
:52 TO FIRST PITCH
For 18 to 19 minutes — not something nice and even, like 20, because this routine doesn’t require 20 minutes when executed the right way — Lange occupies himself with pregame running and calisthenics.
His body needs to be conditioned to do what LSU asks of him, and he’s done it right. Lange has made 34 career starts, and he has lasted into the seventh inning of 21 of them.
When you have been successfully coaching as long as LSU's Paul Mainieri has — 2017 marks his…
It was his endurance, both mental and physical, that produced what both Mainieri and Dunn independently called his most impressive performance of his 2016 season: On the road at Auburn in a game where he walked six and gave up seven earned runs and his team lost 8-5.
“Sometimes the great players show their true greatness when it’s not going as well as they normally have it going,” Mainieri said.
After two quick innings, the wheels started coming off in the third. Lange walked the leadoff batter, and things quickly unraveled. He walked four batters in the inning, gave up a bases-clearing double and allowed another run to score on a wild pitch. LSU was in a 4-0 hole.
Lange hit a batter with two outs in the next inning, and the next batter deposited the second pitch he saw into the bleachers. LSU trailed 6-2, and at that point Lange had thrown at least 73 pitches.
LSU stuck with him. Lange set down six in a row, striking out three of them. Auburn eventually chased Lange with another run in the seventh inning, but he’d done his job as far as LSU was concerned.
“He was not real sharp,” Dunn said. “But he could’ve been out of that game in the third (inning), I mean it was that type of day. But he pitched into the seventh.
“You say, ‘Well, God, he gave up six runs.’ Well, yes. The numbers weren’t really good. But for me, when I’m looking at that going ‘What did he do?’ Well, he saved our bullpen for two days, he kept us right there in the game to give us a chance to win the game. We didn’t, but to me, that was a testimony of maturing as a pitcher.”
With its bullpen intact, LSU won the final two games of the series.
:32 TO FIRST PITCH
This is when Lange finally lets that famous right arm go to work. Lange starts by using weighted balls — each varying degrees heavier than a usual baseball — before he settles into a groove with a regular ball.
Lange’s delivery is violence. He draws the knee of his lead leg nearly level with his chest before he explodes forward. His torso and head lean off to his left side as his arm whips through, the force causing his head to dip so, just after releasing the ball, his eyes look at the ground before re-aquiring his target.
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His pitches are just as violent: a fastball that can touch the mid to high 90s and a breaking ball so sharp it seems it could cut through a phone book. This is the stuff that makes Lange such an appealing prospect.
LSU has been watching Lange’s bullpen sessions with giddiness during the run-up to this season.
“I watched him throw a bullpen a week ago,” Mainieri said at LSU’s media day Jan. 27. “It was the best bullpen I've ever seen him throw. When Alan Dunn told him he wanted a fastball ... down and away on the knees, I mean, he was hitting that glove. When he wanted to go inside, he was hitting the glove. He was throwing his curveball for strikes.
“He just looked very confident and better than I've ever seen him look.”
That’s a strong statement to make for someone who put together a freshman year like Lange’s. But LSU isn’t focused on reaching for results. Lange and the LSU staff are invested in the process, which they believe will yield results.
Lange treats his bullpen sessions like he does game days. He does not like to be bothered as he finds the zone where the big, nasty right-hander resides. But afterward, as is true on game day, he’ll usually talk to his mother about how it went.
“When he told me about his bullpen yesterday, I reiterated to him, ‘Buddy, you’ve got a talent. Just let it happen,’ ” Renée Lange said last week. “And he’s like, ‘I know.’ ”
Renée Lange laughed at her son’s youthful confidence.
“I know! He’s damn good, and he’s feeling really confident,” Renée Lange said.
:15 TO FIRST PITCH
Fifteen minutes before first pitch, Lange wraps up his pre-game bullpen. At this point, he has likely worked up a sweat and he’s nearly ready to go. There’s one last item on his pregame checklist.
He finds Dunn, bows his head and says a prayer.
Lange and Dunn have found kindred spirits in each other. In Dunn, Lange sees someone who will nurture his perfectionism and make something great. In Lange, Dunn sees a passionate competitor who never wants to relinquish the ball.
“The dude looks you in the face and says, ‘You’re not getting the ball. I’m going back out,’ ” Dunn said. “I want every dude to tell me that. Now, we make decisions depending on the situation, but those guys know when they toe the mound up they’re going nine innings.
“That’s the mentality I want these guys having. I want them to be grabbing that ball and not wanting to give it up. He’s the epitome of doing that. That’s your makeup. He’s off the chart with that.”
Renée Lange said her son was in a near panic when word started to leak last summer that Mainieri was considering an offer from Texas. Not only because he’d be losing his head coach, but that also likely meant he’d be losing his pitching coach.
“I asked him a lot as a freshman, ‘Does coach Dunn yell at you guys? How does he get you to do it?’ ” Renée Lange said. “He said, ‘Mom, I have never heard him say a cuss word ever. He doesn’t need to. He has earned our respect, and when he tells us something, I believe it.’
“To me, especially as a single mom ... to have a coach like that who you know has your kid’s best interest at heart and you know he’s going to model every day what it means to do the right thing and still be successful, it’s huge.”
The moment has arrived. Lange will take the mound, take in the sign relayed by Dunn to catcher Michael Papierski from the dugout, and let 125 minutes of preparation Friday and the countless hours before do the rest.
The first pitch might be a perfect fastball that paints the outside corner for strike one, or a knee-buckling curve that sliced through the strike zone and into Papierski’s mitt. Regardless, Lange has seen this unfold already, now it’s just about executing the vision.
This is the fun part. All the work was done long before. This is what he feels he was meant to do.
Renée Lange recalled a story. She adopted Lange not long after he was born, and his biological mother offered one piece of advice that stuck in Renée Lange’s mind for years.
“His biological mom told us that in her family there are some professional baseball players,” Renée Lange said. “So she did tell us, if he picks up a ball, make sure you foster that. We took it seriously.”
So, too, does Lange.