HOOVER, Ala. — Paul Mainieri and Alan Dunn met earlier this week before LSU’s first two games of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
They mapped out their blueprint for the pitching staff for the first game and then, on the next day, for the second game. They developed a plan. They decided what pitchers could enter at what times and who’s available for certain situations.
This is what they do before every game.
“You go in with an idea of what you want to do,” said Dunn, the Tigers’ pitching coach.
In the past two games, they’ve done what they had to do.
After all, who plans or expects back-to-back starting pitchers to last a combined 2.2 innings?
The Tigers (48-9) won those two games — 9-8 victory over Auburn and 10-5 against Arkansas — to reach the SEC tournament semifinals, getting 15.1 innings of nine-hit, four-run ball from a combined nine relievers.
They proved on a national stage and against stiff competition that their bullpen might not be the weak link of this squad. All of those relievers got a day of rest, too.
LSU and Texas A&M, winners of their first two games in the tournament, received a bye Friday to Saturday’s single-elimination semifinals. A&M meets Vanderbilt at noon, and LSU faces Florida 30 minutes after that game.
The winners clash in the championship game at 3:30 p.m. at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium with more on the line than just a title. The Tigers may be playing to claim the school’s first No. 1 overall NCAA national seed.
It’s another chance, too, for LSU to show off a bullpen that, at first, appeared to be the only slim crack in the nation’s top-ranked team.
“They’re not. They’re not the weaknesses at all,” starting pitcher Alex Lange said. “They’re a strength for us.”
LSU getting to this point is anything but unexpected. The Tigers are the reigning SEC regular-season champs, are the consensus No. 1 team in the nation and have won this event five of the past seven years.
How they got here? That is surprising.
Starting pitchers Jared Poché on Wednesday and Austin Bain on Thursday gave up nine runs and seven hits. Poché lasted three outs; Bain got five outs.
“We’ve played two pretty intense games trying to overcome subpar starting pitching performances,” Mainieri said Friday morning from Samford University’s baseball park, site of LSU’s practice. “Having a little bit of a breather for today is kind of nice for them, I think.”
Especially for Jack Wholestaff — Mainieri’s nickname for his and Dunn’s method of occasionally piecing together a game on the mound with as many as seven pitchers.
Jack Wholestaff is 2-0 this week in Hoover. Relievers got a host of unexpected appearances — a bittersweet situation.
What’s sweet? The bullpen excelling in critical spots. The bitter: short, messy starts from Poché and Bain.
Dunn isn’t worried about Poché, he said. The sophomore lefty gave up five runs (two earned) on three hits and two walks Wednesday in a one-inning start against Auburn. It was his third start of 3.2 innings or less this season in 15 nods. In 10 of the 15, Poché has allowed two earned runs or fewer.
“What’s the track record? He’s really pitched some good outings, and he’s had a couple of outings that weren’t up to the standards that he wants and that we want,” Dunn said. “We’re going to go forward, keep preparing for the next time.”
Bain is different, and even Dunn admits that. There isn’t a long track record for the former Dutchtown High standout. A true freshman, Bain has started just six games this season. He has lasted less than two innings in two of his five SEC starts.
Command of his fastball is at the center of Bain’s issues, Dunn said. It was off in a 1.2-inning, four-hit, four-run outing against Arkansas on Thursday. The same goes for his two-inning, four-hit, two-run performance May 2 at Mississippi State.
He had four walks in those two short starts.
“His stuff has been really good,” Dunn said. “He’s shown he has the ability to be successful in this league. Consistency is what he needs.”
Dunn’s bullpen is beginning to develop that, at least. It’s not by accident. Mainieri credits Dunn for LSU’s success when piecing together a game like it was able to do Wednesday and Thursday.
When Dunn arrived before the 2012 season, he changed Mainieri’s outlook on grooming pitchers. For nearly 30 years, Mainieri had each of his pitchers throw about once a week during the fall. Dunn changed that. Each pitcher threw twice a week in shorter outings.
“More frequently the pitcher gets out there on the mound, the more apt he is to apply things I work with him on at the bullpen,” Dunn told Mainieri.
That mindset led to LSU using Jack Wholestaff — five-plus pitchers, none going much more than two innings — during midweek games.
LSU’s record in midweek games since Dunn arrived is 53-3.
“We started chopping it up and using a lot of guys,” Mainieri said. “When you’re a hitter and face a starting pitcher, you know you’re going to face him three or four times, (so) you get better, but when you only face a pitcher one time, sometimes it’s more difficult for the hitters that way. The second thing that happened, we were keeping the guys sharper.”
They were sharp Wednesday and Thursday. It wasn’t necessarily part of the plan, but it worked.
“Last couple of days have been good days,” reliever Zac Person said. “We’ve put it together.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.