Gunner Pollman’s bat sliced through the air.
Like so many others on this cloudy Sunday at Alex Box Stadium, Pollman missed.
It’s what he missed that was so confounding.
Jared Poché’s low-90s fastball? No.
Alex Lange’s arching, 84-mph curveball? Nope.
It was John Valek’s two-seam fastball — a pitch clocked at a cool 86 mph.
“I’m actually starting to throw it a little bit harder than I have in the past,” a smiling Valek said.
Meet LSU’s new, slippery No. 3 starter — a position that has rankled coach Paul Mainieri’s club for the past two seasons. Valek is far from solidified as the third act behind Poché and Lange, but his two Sunday starts have left pitching coach Alan Dunn smiling.
Valek, a transfer from Akron, pitched one of his better games of his career in the Tigers’ 11-1, series-clinching win over Sacramento State on Sunday. The seven-inning gem included six strikeouts, four hits and one run. It followed a sparkling debut last week that included four hits, seven strikeouts and two earned runs.
LSU pitchers have walked 27 in the first seven games of the season. Valek has walked none in his team-leading 12.2 innings.
So, don’t talk to Dunn or Mainieri about how their No. 3 starter’s fastball can’t crack 88.
“Pitching is about location and location and location,” Dunn said.
“He knows he’s not going to light up the radar gun,” Mainieri said. “It would be like a little guy trying to swing for the fences. He’s crafty, moves the ball in and out.”
The 6-foot, 175-pound Valek faced the minimum through the first six innings Sunday. A batter reached on an error in the second, but catcher Michael Papierski caught him stealing. Another singled, but Valek induced a double play to end the fifth.
He sat down the side in the first, third and fourth, striking out all three in the third with a bevy of pitches that LSU fans probably aren’t used to seeing.
“I’ve kind of lived off the idea that everybody says you’ve got to throw hard to be successful,” Valek said. “I enjoy the way I throw. It works. Why change it?”
His two-seam fastball tops out at 87, and his curveball-slider mix occasionally cracks 70. He’s got a changeup, too. It hovers in the mid-70s.
Valek baffled a Sacramento State lineup Sunday that slapped Lange, a freshman All-American last season, for six hits and three runs through five innings. He did it mostly with that two-seam, sinking fastball.
“Sometimes they can confuse his two-seamer with his changeup,” Mainieri said, “because it tails so much and there’s a little bit off of it.”
Valek mixes in that slow-motion slurve, too. From his seat down the first-base line Sunday, John Valek Jr., the pitcher’s father, watched it confound the Hornets before a three-hit seventh.
“People are way out in front of it. The nice thing about it is it’s got good movement and it drops,” John Jr. said. “You’re watching it from the side and seeing people miss by 2 feet.”
His father wasn’t the only one noticing the improvement in the slow-moving pitch. Valek’s pitching coach at Akron watched his former player toss it in his 5.2-inning debut start last week against Cincinnati.
He called Valek after the game with a question: “Where’d that curve come from?”
The answer, Valek’s father said, is Dunn. Valek is averaging a strikeout per inning — a far cry from his normal self, dad said.
“Usually he’s at three to four strikeouts in seven innings,” said John Jr., a former Division II catcher who coached his son as a youth. “For it to be this high, it just shows you how Coach Dunn has really worked with him.”
Valek has always fought the velocity issue. And his LSU teammates kid him about it. He topped out at about 84 mph as a senior at Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, about 40 miles north of Miami.
The only major college to show interest was Florida State, but a coaching staff change at the program thwarted that potential opportunity.
“He got a lot of, ‘Hey, he doesn’t throw hard enough,’ ” John Jr. said.
Two starts into his LSU career, the velocity isn’t a problem — even if there are still some doubters.
“When I saw the forecast for today with the winds galing out at 14 mph, I’m thinking, ‘Soft thrower, wind blowing out and a pretty aggressive hitting team — that isn’t a good recipe for us,’ ” Mainieri said. “But he completely stymied them.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.