The new ideal scenario for LSU and junior right-hander Caleb Gilbert looks a lot like the one that unfolded Tuesday evening at Alex Box Stadium.
Holding a slim 2-0 lead against Louisiana Tech in the seventh inning, LSU called Gilbert’s number out of the bullpen for the first time in 2018. These, LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, are the situations where Gilbert is at his best.
“He likes me pitching with a lead because I’m going to go out there and fill up the zone and put pressure on their hitters, and they’re going to have to do all the work to get the lead back,” Gilbert said.
“That’s kind of what he said my success has been throughout my career, embracing that, especially at the end of last year.”
The scenario played out just as Mainieri had hoped. Gilbert locked in, needing seven pitches in a 1-2-3 inning.
This, of course, is a significant change for Gilbert and LSU. After Gilbert started opening night and spent eight weeks in LSU’s weekend rotation, his role on the team is shifting.
The picture for the spot vacated by Gilbert in the weekend rotation is, for now, intentionally murky. More on that later.
The wheels had been turning on this decision for some time, but last week’s start against Texas A&M was the catalyst Mainieri needed.
In that appearance, Gilbert did not make it out of the first inning. He handed the ball off to reliever Cam Sanders with two outs and his team trailing 5-0.
That day was a continuation of a disturbing trend that had plagued Gilbert at times in his starts: He could not find the put-away pitch with two strikes.
Gilbert faced eight Texas A&M hitters. Six of them recorded base hits and another scored a sacrifice fly. Three hits and the sac fly came with two strikes against the batter.
“The reality is Caleb has a really difficult time striking batters out,” Mainieri said. “For whatever reason, he gets a lot of guys in two strike counts and then they put the ball in play.
“I’m not a big pitch-to-contact kind of guy. It’s hard to have bad luck when you strike batters out.”
Mainieri said he wanted to give Gilbert every opportunity to prove he was a capable Southeastern Conference starter. Three of Gilbert’s eight starts went poorly, a few were excellent.
That ratio was not strong enough to merit Gilbert staying in that role.
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But, Mainieri cautioned, that does not mean Gilbert will be relegated to unimportant innings from this point forward.
Mainieri said he thinks the key to coaching is to know his players’ strengths — find the extraordinary thing they can do — and put them in position where those strengths are emphasized.
He thought back to Gilbert’s dominant stretch late last season, when he often entered mid-game and shut down opposing lineups.
“Think of the game against Mississippi State that sent us to (the College World Series) last year,” Mainieri said.
Gilbert entered a game that was spinning out of control for LSU. It was the third inning, Jared Poché had already given up two runs in the frame and had just walked the bases loaded.
After allowing back-to-back RBI singles to the first hitters he faced, Gilbert went into shutdown mode, retiring 15 straight batters. LSU went on the offensive, outscoring Mississippi State 11-0 in the final six innings to claim a spot in the CWS.
“I can see that role being something that’s really good for him; with us having a lead where the starting pitcher doesn’t go really deep into the game,” Mainieri said. “He can come in in the fifth or sixth inning and pitch three or four innings if he’s hot.”
As far as Gilbert’s old spot in the rotation goes, Mainieri is not sure it is going to come down to one guy taking his place.
LSU is awaiting reinforcements.
Though AJ Labas has done a fine job in the midweek starter’s role — he is now 4-1 with a 2.23 ERA after logging six shutout innings Tuesday — he is similar in profile to Gilbert, without swing and miss stuff.
“Certainly he’s a candidate,” Mainieri said. “I’m not sure if he’s ready for that or not. I don’t know if his stuff is strong enough to be a starting pitcher in the SEC yet.”
Left-hander Nick Bush, with his three-pitch mix and his ability to control opposing run games, is another fine option. But there are other things to consider there, too.
“I think he can be a really good starting pitcher … it’s just the problem would be then we would be giving up a key arm at the end of ballgames for us, and I don’t know how we would do that,” Mainieri said.
Though his role has shifted, Mainieri said it is not inconceivable for Gilbert to start Sunday if that new ideal scenario does not present itself the first two games.
Whatever his role, Gilbert is at peace with it.
“I’m fully embracing that opportunity,” Gilbert said. “Whatever he needs me to do, I’m going to do it with all I’ve got and try to help the team win.”
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