STARKVILLE, Miss. — LSU coach Paul Mainieri was faced with a couple pitching decisions in Thursday night’s opener, and in hindsight, both decisions worked out well.
The first came in the bottom of the seventh inning, with LSU nursing a one-run lead and ace right-hander Alex Lange on the mound.
Lange began the seventh inning having thrown 100 pitches and had put together an outstanding performance up to that point.
Mainieri had left-hander Nick Bush warming in the bullpen, and with two outs in the inning and the dangerous left-hander Cody Brown looming, Mainieri went out to assess Lange.
He didn’t plan on taking his ace out unless Lange honestly told him he could not go on.
“The only way I was going to take him out is if he told me, ‘Coach, I’m gassed,’” Mainieri recalled. “I asked him to tell me the truth, ‘I don’t need you to be a hero, how do you feel?’ He said, ‘I’m good, I can get another out.’”
The conversation centered around the approach LSU would take with Brown. With Brown representing the go-ahead run, Mainieri instructed Lange to intentionally walk Brown if he fell behind in the count. That eventually ended up happening after Lange fell behind 2-0.
What Mainieri was probably not anticipating was that Lange would walk designated hitter Hunter Vansau to load the bases. But even then, with Lange at 122 pitches, he did not lift him in favor of Bush.
He stuck with Lange, and Lange repaid his trust by striking out Josh Lovelady on three pitches to get out of the jam.
“That was not the way we designed it to be, but he ended up getting the last out,” Mainieri said.
Mainieri was faced with another decision in the next inning.
LSU replaced Lange with right-hander Zack Hess, and the freshman comported himself well, firing a sharp 1-2-3 inning with a pair of strikeouts against the bottom of the Mississippi State order.
“When you’ve got a guy that throws his butt off like (Lange) did, you have to do everything possible to make sure he gets the win,” Hess said. “… I just wanted to keep our team in position to keep it going.”
Closer Hunter Newman was warming in the bullpen, but Mainieri said he considered leaving Hess in for the ninth inning. Hess threw just 15 pitches in the inning, 11 of which went for strikes.
“I thought about it long and hard,” Mainieri said. “I have all the confidence in the world in Zack Hess.”
He ultimately decided to roll with Newman for a couple different reasons.
“The biggest reason was we’ve groomed Hunter Newman to handle this situation, and we’re not going to win any kind of championships if Hunter Newman doesn’t get the last outs of games for us,” Mainieri said.
The second reason was a matter of availability. In a series where two wins would equal a division championship, Mainieri said it would be smart not to burn one of his best bullpen arms in one game.
“If I hook Hess there, then I’ve got Hess available for (Friday),” Mainieri said. “If he goes out there and throws another 15-20 pitches, then I lose our set-up guy.
“It wasn’t like I was playing for tomorrow, I just felt Hunter Newman, with his experience, he knows how to get the last outs of the game. It was the right thing to do.”
Play at the plate clarification
Mainieri had a long conversation with home plate umpire Marcus Pattillo after a play at the plate involving Cole Freeman in the third inning, eventually convincing the umpires to review the play. After a lengthy review, the umpires still determined Freeman was out.
It appeared Freeman was never tagged on his initial pass toward home plate, but he also never touched the plate, as he soared wide of it on the first base side. There was a reason for that, Mainieri said.
“My contention was that the catcher was blocking the plate before he was ever receiving the throw,” Mainieri said. “Cole was trying to go around him … and he threw a forearm into Cole to knock him away from the base. I mean, that’s blocking the plate. But they looked at it, and I’m sure they made the right call from replay.”
Mainieri said the college rule for catchers blocking the plate is somewhat vague.
“You can only block the plate if the throw takes you to that spot on the foul line,” Mainieri said. “Our rule in college is much more ambiguous and people interpret it any way they want to. In the Major Leagues, it’s pretty cut and dry: The catcher has to give him a lane to slide.”