This might sound weird, but when LSU coach Paul Mainieri thinks of Nick Bush, he can’t help also thinking about Chad Jones.
It’s certainly not because of physique. Bush does not cast the same imposing presence of Jones, a hard-hitting Southeastern Conference safety who moonlighted as a baseball player.
But the two do have one thing in common. Jones gave LSU a left-handed option out of the bullpen in 2009. Bush can do the same thing. That makes Mainieri think Bush can be an important piece for LSU during the stretch run.
“When Chad came back from football ... he didn’t pitch a lot of innings down the stretch, but the innings he pitched were really significant for us,” Mainieri said. “Now here’s Nick Bush — obviously he’s not a football player; it’s not the exact same scenario.
“But he’s coming back from surgeries; he didn’t play last year; and it’s taken a while to knock the rust off. But I see him making significant contributions to our team.”
Bush is one of two left-handed relievers for the Tigers. The other, freshman Blair Frederick, has logged just 1.2 innings this season.
Last week, in LSU's series opener at Alabama, the Tigers had a three-run lead in the eighth inning, and powerful Alabama lefty Chandler Taylor was coming to the plate with a runner on. Mainieri turned to Bush, who initiated weak contact and got out of the inning unscathed.
It was the first time Mainieri used Bush in the late innings with the game on the line this season.
“It didn’t hit me until after it was over,” Bush said. “I wasn’t thinking about it too much. I didn’t want to have that in my head when I went out there. After I realized it, I was like, ‘I kind of got us out of a situation there.’ ”
Mainieri again went to Bush in the series finale for the eighth and ninth innings in a tie game. Bush allowed just one hit as he bridged the gap to closer Hunter Newman.
That’s what caused Mainieri to think back to Jones, who was LSU’s only real weapon against left-handers out of the bullpen that season.
“The past couple outings have been pretty successful for me, and I think coach Mainieri is feeling a little more confident in me,” Bush said.
It’s taken a while for Bush to get to this point. His first appearance this season was Feb. 22. It was the first time he’d thrown a ball in a game since spring 2015.
He missed about half his senior year of high school and all of his true freshman season at LSU as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Bush still doesn’t feel like he’s all the way back.
He’s been surprised to find his changeup — a pitch he never really felt comfortable with before the injury — is now one of his better offerings post-surgery. His curveball still doesn’t have the bite it did before the operation, though.
“I feel like I’m getting there,” Bush said. “I’m really close. I still think there are some things I’m improving in; there’s some strength to come. But I’m close.”
Though he might not be at full strength yet, this version of him is good enough for Mainieri and LSU to trust.
“I just see the ball coming out of his hand really well,” Mainieri said. “I think he can be a vital guy for us down the stretch.”