On nights when Alex Lange is scheduled to pitch, he rarely has a conversation with Paul Mainieri.
Mainieri sees that unforgiving look in Lange’s eyes. The celebrated pitchers he has coached at LSU, like Aaron Nola and Louis Coleman, have it too. The 11th-year coach describes it as an “obsession with beating the other guy.”
“Lange will do anything for anybody,” Mainieri said Friday as LSU opened preseason practice. “He'll do philanthropic work; he'll visit kids; he'll talk to the media; he'll do whatever. Not on game day. I can't even talk to him on game day. If I look at him, he gives me that ‘grrr.’ (It) scares me.”
Mainieri mentioning Lange with the likes of Nola and Coleman isn’t insignificant.
Still, there were times last season when Lange's command vanished. His ERA jumped by almost two runs from his freshman season, and his career highs in hits, earned runs and walks all came during conference play.
But Mainieri said he believe Lange is in for a stellar year. Facing some of the world’s best as part of the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and significant improvements in command have made a difference.
Only the second LSU pitcher and fifth overall Tiger to play for Team USA in Mainieri’s tenure, Lange made trips to Taiwan, Japan and Cuba with the 24-player team, learning the unique styles of play that those national teams offer.
He treasured the opportunity to represent his country. However, learning and observing from USA teammates who are considered future first-round picks, a spot Lange could to be taken next June, stood out from his time in red, white and blue.
“ ‘Hey, what’s your approach against this guy? You got a lefty in there who’s battling you real hard. You go in? You go away? What do you do next?’ ” Lange said of his conversations with teammates. “Having those conversations with guys really helped me to say, ‘What would I do in this situation?’ "
Mike Papierski’s maturation as a right-handed hitter, combined with consistency on defense, has made him Mainieri’s clear option as the opening day catcher.
But behind Papierski remains some uncertainty.
Jordan Romero’s lingering shoulder issues from a stint in the Cape Cod League, combined with a regression on offense, has left Mainieri considering LSU-Eunice transfer Nick Coomes as his No. 2 catcher.
Romero, known for his arm strength behind the plate, didn’t pick up a baseball during fall practice. Though he will catch in practice, he’s still unable to make throws to bases.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen or if he’s going to be even physically ready,” Mainieri said of Romero.
Mainieri recruited Coomes as a third baseman out of junior college, but Coomes spent time at catcher as a senior at Catholic High and as a freshman in junior college. Romero’s injury concerns and the need for depth in the future necessitated Coomes moving behind the plate, Mainieri said.
Bush’s progress slow
Redshirt freshman Nick Bush’s recovery from Tommy John surgery last fall is taking more time than Mainieri expected, but there are encouraging signs.
Bush will throw an inning during Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage, which came as a surprise to Mainieri. The coach didn’t believe he would be able to face live hitters this early.
Though there's nothing structurally wrong with his elbow, Mainieri is unsure if Bush will be ready for the start of the season.
“When he first started throwing bullpens, I was getting excited,” Mainieri said. “The ball was really coming out of his hand nice. And then when he was facing hitters, he just got fatigued very quickly. I think the scar tissue started to act up a little bit and all that kind of stuff. So we had to put the breaks on again. Now, I think he’s starting to work forward again.”
As part of opening night Feb. 17 at Alex Box Stadium, Brad Garafola Jr. — the son one of three Baton Rouge police officers who were slain in last summer’s police shooting — will throw out the first pitch. ... Because LSU will face Air Force and Army on opening weekend, the Tigers will hold Military Appreciation Days then. The United States Air Force Academy Wings of Blue parachuting team will also deliver the game ball Friday, Saturday and Sunday.