Alden Cartwright actually enjoyed when he didn’t have a specific role in LSU’s bullpen last season. He never knew when coach Paul Mainieri would suddenly turn to him and say those five words.
“I kind of like when Coach Mainieri is like, ‘Hey, Cartwright, go warm up,’ and two minutes later I’m in the game,” the former Runnels High star said.
Said fellow reliever Zac Person: “Every day was a staff day, besides the Friday nights.”
That’s likely changing this year.
Outside of closer Joe Broussard, LSU’s group of 2014 relievers never found consistent roles, in part because of the instability with the starting rotation. The Tigers expect to have a handful of solid starting pitching this season – even if they are young.
For the relievers, that means stability and less unpredictability, which guys like Cartwright and Person actually enjoyed. But they know it’s good for a squad that had issues beyond Friday night ace Aaron Nola last season.
A few days into preseason practice, LSU is molding a half-dozen pitchers as starters while about a dozen others are developing niches for what’s expected to be a fully stocked and versatile bullpen.
For the first time in his four years at LSU, pitching coach Alan Dunn entered a preseason practice with a completely healthy pitching staff of 17.
“Depth is so huge. Usually you’ve got one or two guys in the training room. We’ve got 17 arms. That gives you a chance to look in scrimmages, a chance for everybody to get opportunities,” Dunn said. “You get a chance to extend your guys you think are starters, get them built up pitch wise. It’s still way early to tell who’s going to be who.”
Who exactly is going to be who?
Dunn and a handful of relievers say it’s too early to tell. They know one thing though: LSU’s bullpen should be more structured than 2014.
“We have enough guys we should have roles this year,” Person said. “If we have as many starters as we think we do, it’s going to be interesting to see how our staff develops.”
The Tigers spent 2014 using multiple relievers to piece together many games that did not begin with Nola on the mound. Nola averaged 7.2 innings per start, nearly two innings more than Jared Poché (5.7). The three pitchers with the next most starts – Kyle Bouman (4.8 innings per start), Cody Glenn (3.6) and Cartwright (2.4) – didn’t eclipse the five-inning average.
Coach Paul Mainieri never found a true third starter who could extend into late innings. He tried. Ten pitchers started at least one game last season. That’s tied with the 2009 team for the most in Mainieri’s eight seasons. The ’09 team played 10 more games, too.
For LSU’s relievers, this meant nearly 50 staff-pitched games - or, Johnny and Jack Wholestaff, as Mainieri called it.
Outside of Nola pitching, “every other time was like, ‘If you get called on, you go out there and do what you can,’” Person said.
Mainieri’s club lacked more than deep-game starters. The Tigers lacked pitchers in general.
They finished the season with 12 healthy arms last year. A 12-2 season-ending loss to Houston in the Baton Rouge regional is a stinging reminder of that. The Tigers ran out of arms playing their fourth game in four days.
This season is expected to be different on the mound.
LSU signed seven pitchers in a 2014 class ranked No. 1 in the nation. Even with the departure of one of those – the class’ headliner, Mac Marshall – the Tigers believe they’ll have four solid starters.
Freshmen Jake Godfrey, Alex Lange, Jake Latz and Doug Norman, and sophomore Jared Poché and senior Kyle Bouman are vying for starting spots. Already, Mainieri said Poché will be pitching on the weekend for LSU, and one of the rookies is likely to move into a closer role by the time Southeastern Conference play begins.
That leaves a group of about a dozen hurlers at Dunn’s disposal. Who’s the late-inning guy? Who’s the mid-inning reliever? Who’s the pitcher you bring in for a must-get out?
Those things are being determined during preseason drills and might not be settled until mid-March.
“There is no way other than putting them in the game during parts of the game and see how they respond,” Dunn said. “We’ll start formalizing an idea as we start doing these (preseason) scrimmages.”
He’s got a group of relievers with a ton of experience – in big spots, too. Mainieri was forced to start Cartwright, Kurt McCune and Person in SEC games.
In a pair of critical starts, Cartwright threw four scoreless innings in a series-clinching 4-0 win over Ole Miss, and he threw four innings of one-hit ball in the SEC Tournament title game victory over Florida.
Cartwright refers to himself as a “starting reliever” last year. Mainieri and Dunn hope those days are over.
LSU released a depth chart last week of its pitchers.
Projected starting rotation
Jared Poché, sophomore
Alex Lange, freshman
Jake Godfrey, freshman
Jake Latz, freshman
Doug Norman, freshman
Kyle Bouman, senior
Zac Person, senior
Russell Reynolds, sophomore
Parker Bugg, sophomore
Alden Cartwright, sophomore
Hunter Devall, junior
Collin Strall, sophomore
Jesse Stallings, freshman
Ryan May, freshman
Brady Domingue, senior
Hunter Newman, sophomore
Austin Bain, freshman
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