Customary soreness and fatigue weren’t accompanied by pain in Jake Latz’s surgically mended left elbow following a clean inning Tuesday against Northwestern State. So, four days later, there he was facing the No. 1 team in the country in his Southeastern Conference debut.
He snapped off an 0-2 curveball during the sixth inning of Saturday’s 6-2 loss to Florida. Nelson Maldonado offered a weak half-swing and returned to the dugout. Christian Hicks and Ryan Larson neglected to swing at the hook, instead allowing home plate umpire Scott Cline to ring them up.
“You could see the spin out of my hand,” Latz said Monday, a day before he starts his team’s SEC tournament opener against Tennessee at approximately 8 p.m. Tuesday in Hoover, Alabama. “I was able to get it down and where I wanted to pitch it. I could just see by the hitters’ reaction how good it was. It was helpful to get in that situation, a time where I had to bear down and throw it with all my effort. The spin came back and the results were there. That was the first time it’s been that good in a while.”
Clearing another hurdle in a nearly two-year process, Latz was told Sunday afternoon he would start the Tigers’ single-elimination game against a Volunteers lineup that has three lefties in its first six spots.
Latz has yet to pitch more than 1.1 innings and hasn’t thrown more than 36 pitches, but more importantly he has felt no ill effects from his past two outings.
“This is something we’ve been grooming him for for almost two years,” coach Paul Mainieri said of the 11th-round pick in 2014 MLB draft.
Latz made his college debut April 12 against McNeese State, starting and lasting 1.1 innings, after which he suffered another setback. After tossing a 1-2-3, 20-pitch inning against Northwestern State when he threw 19 fastballs, Latz faced five Gators hitters Saturday, working around a freak infield double and a walk to get the three strikeouts on just 10 pitches. All of his third strikes were on the curveball.
“That contributed toward the thought (of starting him), certainly,” Mainieri said of Latz’s offspeed showing. “Anytime you can mix in your offspeed pitches, it gives you a chance to be more successful. His curveball and his changeup may even be even better pitches than his fastball, and his fastball is 92 (mph). The biggest thing though, in these couple outings that he’s had, he’s thrown the ball over the plate. For a guy that hasn’t pitched to throw as many strikes as he’s throwing is the most encouraging thing for me.”
Mainieri said Latz’s performance and how he feels between innings would dictate how long he pitches against Tennessee.
The announcement comes as a bit of a surprise given Mainieri’s comments after severe weather halted LSU’s series opener against Florida in the third inning Thursday. Alex Lange, who was starting on short rest, threw 39 pitches before the stoppage.
Mainieri said then he viewed Lange as the Tigers’ starter Tuesday in the SEC tournament, but a staff sitdown after the series win changed his thinking. The coach said Lange, Jared Poché, Riley Smith and Caleb Gilbert will all be unavailable against the Volunteers in a game Mainieri said he’s treating “like a championship game.”
“Our No. 1 priority, quite frankly, is to make sure Alex Lange remains healthy throughout his career and as well as throughout the rest of this year,” Mainieri said. “We decided the most prudent thing for his sake was to give him at least five days’ rest. ... Hopefully he’ll get a chance to pitch Wednesday. Obviously we’re not looking past Tennessee.”
Latz will enjoy his opportunity.
“I’m happy I put that all behind me, happy my coaches have the confidence in me to give me the opportunity to do it,” he said.
Robertson, Bryce Jordan land SEC first-team honors
Kramer Robertson, who began the season at second base before switching to shortstop, was named first-team All-SEC at the position Monday, joining Bryce Jordan as the only LSU players on the first team.
Cole Freeman, who slid to second when Robertson moved to shortstop, was named to the all-defensive team. Right fielder Antoine Duplantis made the all-freshman team.
Robertson hit .321 while starting all 56 of LSU’s games and fielding at a .961 clip.
Jordan, who flip-flopped between first base and designated hitter early in the season, tied with Mississippi State designated hitter Jack Kruger for a spot on the first team. Jordan slugged .449 while hitting .316.
After beginning the season at third base, Freeman switched to his more natural position at second, committing just seven errors all season. Duplantis, who also named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday, leads the team with 76 hits and a .335 batting average.