Paul Mainieri leaned back in his chair, glanced at a group of reporters and smiled.
“First time we’ve had a third starter in a while,” Mainieri said, “isn’t it?”
It is. It definitely is.
John Valek, the senior transfer from Akron, on Sunday extended his impressive start as an LSU Tiger, pitching a fifth straight gem in his fifth start. His six-inning, two-run outing kept the Tigers around until their six-run eighth inning led to a series-salvaging 7-5 win over Alabama in Alex Box Stadium.
Valek stranded four runners in scoring position, including his wiggle free of a nasty sixth-inning jam, delivering another confidence-boosting performance — this time against a Southeastern Conference squad. He struck out eight and walked one in just his second career start against an SEC team.
His stint improved an LSU career-opening stat line that looks nothing like what the program’s past few No. 3 starters turned in.
“He’s pitching as good a baseball as any of our starting pitchers are,” Mainieri said. “I’m sure statistically it will show that as well.”
Valek’s ERA (2.20), strikeout-to-walk ratio (26-to-2), record (4-0) and opponent’s batting average (.239) are all better than what has been posted by the Tigers’ ace, Alex Lange, and their veteran No. 2 pitcher, Jared Poché.
Valek is providing a solution — at least through five weeks — to this program’s third starter bugaboo over the past two seasons. The lack of a No. 3 guy reared its ugly head in the postseason: a regional loss in 2014 and a brief, three-game stay in Omaha last year.
How much of an issue had it been? Just once did the Tigers’ No. 3 starter last at least six innings in an SEC game in 2014 and 2015. That’s 18 total opportunities.
Valek hit the six-inning mark in his first SEC start Sunday. A caveat: It came against the league’s worst offensive squad. Bama entered the series batting .241, but the Tide did ding Lange, a Freshman All-American in 2015, for four runs Saturday.
So it’s one SEC team down and nine to go for the former Mid-American Conference hurler. Valek last faced an SEC team in the second start of his freshman year at Akron. He allowed five earned runs in 5.2 innings to Kentucky.
Even Mainieri admitted to having his doubts about Valek’s ability to pitch against the big bats in, arguably, the nation’s stiffest conference. After all, his fastball hovers around 85 mph.
“He didn’t have overpowering stuff, but we’ve gotten by with some guys in the past, most recently Kyle Bouman,” the coach said. “I always compare everybody to Chris Cotton. He’s the model guy of the mid-80s, mixes his pitches. I’m not putting (Valek) in that category quite yet. Those kind of guys, if they have good changeups and breaking balls and they can have good command and mix their pitches, they can be very effective.”
Bouman, another mid-80s pitcher who arrived as a transfer, was part of a host of hurlers Mainieri used in the Sunday starting spot in 2014 and 2015. In each of those seasons, the Tigers used four different pitchers as No. 3 guys in SEC play: Alden Cartwright (four starts in 2014), Bouman (four in 2014-15), Kurt McCune (one in 2014), Austin Bain (three in 2015), Zac Person (two in 2014-15) and Jake Godfrey (four in 2015).
LSU’s No. 3 starters in 2014 had an ERA of 6.75 in regular-season SEC games. In 2015, that improved to 6.14.
Valek, a lifelong LSU fan from Florida, knew of the third-starter issues when he arrived this summer.
“I heard a little bit about it coming in here in the fall, that they’ve always been looking for a Sunday starter,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to do what I’ve done so far, and hopefully I can continue that.”
How does a guy whose fastball tops out at 87 do it? Second baseman Kramer Robertson knows. He battled Valek in fall practice.
“I thought from the fist time I faced him, there’s something different about him,” Robertson said. “I felt like every time I faced him, ‘Oh man, this pitcher looks like he’s throwing meatballs up there, and we couldn’t get hits off of him.’ We did just what everybody else has done against him: hit the ball at people and a lot of popups. He’s a frustrating pitcher.”
Mainieri’s happy about that. When is the last time he has felt this confident about his third starter?
Ryan Eades in 2013, the coach said.
“It’s nice,” he said.