OMAHA, Neb . — After his family, his religion and his baseball, Paul Mainieri’s favorite thing may be talking.
He lives to talk. Reporters talk about how a person can “fill up a notebook.” With Mainieri, you fill up a notebook and have an emergency notepad in the back pocket, just in case.
Mainieri has met with the media every day since his Tigers beat Louisiana-Lafayette in the Baton Rouge super regional Sunday to return to the College World Series. Every time, he has been asked about whom he plans to start at 2 p.m. Sunday against TCU in their CWS opener.
Every time, Mainieri has danced around the pitcher’s mound.
The two-step goes something like this:
Question: “Are you starting Alex Lange or Jared Poché on Sunday?”
Answer: “One or the other.”
The reason the typically loquacious Mainieri basically has taken the Fifth on his starting pitcher is that perhaps he’s dealing with some pretty intriguing — or confounding — decisions over whom to go with.
First thing: It will be one or the other. This is not the time, and TCU is definitely not the team for the Tigers to trot out their bullpen’s greatest hits, the “Jake Wholestaff” approach, as Mainieri calls it.
Both Lange and Poché have given plenty of evidence that they will give LSU a quality start. Lange, the freshman right-hander, has given up just five earned runs in his past five starts (including a shutout of UNC-Wilmington in the Baton Rouge regional) for a sparkling 1.25 ERA. Poché’s restoration-project results after a shaky late-season run are a smaller sample size but even more impressive taken on their merits: 16.1 innings in the NCAA tournament, one earned run, a get-out-the-microscope 0.55 ERA.
Mainieri likely will name Lange his starter. He will have had more than a week of rest since his start Saturday against the Ragin’ Cajuns, he has been by far the best LSU pitcher throughout the entire season and it’s absolutely critical to get off to a winning start in your CWS bracket.
But Poché’s NCAA tournament worksheet — and the fact that he’s a lefty while Lange is a righty — makes for a compelling argument why he should start. Especially against TCU.
Five of the Horned Frogs’ nine regular starters bat left-handed. Their best player, Big 12 player of the year Cody Jones, hits .371 and is a switch hitter, as is regular starting second baseman Garrett Crain (.271). And Poché would have had six days of rest, exactly what he got during the regular season.
It’s such a critical choice, because neither Lange nor Poche likely would be seen again in long work unless the Tigers reach the CWS championship series, which begins June 22. Possibly one or the other could do short work Sunday and pitch in the bracket final game June 19 or, more likely, a must-win game June 20 coming out of the losers’ bracket.
In between, the Tigers have other issues. If they are able to win two games or are forced into the losers’ bracket, they will have to choose a third starter to try to push them toward the championship series.
Who the Jack in Jack Wholestaff, the starter in such a game, is is anyone’s guess. Besides Lange and Poché, eight other LSU pitchers have started games, led by Jake Godfrey with nine and Austin Bain with six. The conventional wisdom would seem to go with Bain, a righty, but it could depend on the matchup.
Sometimes there are too many choices, too many variables, and that could also be the dilemma facing Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn in the days leading up to the CWS. Sometimes it’s better to have your hand forced, but either hand LSU goes with offers plenty of reasons to do so.
I don’t envy them their choice, because it’s either one that will be lauded or roundly criticized depending on whether the Tigers can open in Omaha with a win.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.