KNOXVILLE, Tennessee —Jared Poché and Alex Lange ran beside one another during sprints Thursday evening at the end of LSU’s practice.
Back and forth they went on the soggy, rain-soaked outfield grass at Lindsey Nelson Stadium — side by side, stride for stride, even finishing together.
But in the pitching world, they’re heading in opposite directions — at least recently.
And it’s all because of that little thing called fastball command, preached pitching coach Alan Dunn.
“Got to tighten up the command,” Dunn said.
You don’t have to tell Poché.
“Instead of throwing it at the knees. I’m throwing it at the thigh,” he said.
And Lange? Well, he’s rebounding from a surprisingly shaky start to the season. Why? You guessed it.
“My fastball command early on was,” Lange said pausing, “I wouldn’t say atrocious but at times it was.”
The surging Tigers (33-16, 14-10 Southeastern Conference) meet the slumping Volunteers (26-23, 7-17) on Friday, kick starting a three-game series with nine days left in the regular season. LSU, fighting to host an NCAA regional, has won five straight. Tennessee, without much of a postseason shot, has lost five of its last six.
Coach Paul Mainieri’s focus is getting wins to, one, remain in the SEC West hunt and, two, to remain in the RPI top 15 — a key in hosting a regional. Meanwhile, his pitching coach leans against the outfield wall at Tennessee’s cozy baseball stadium evaluating the Tigers’ two starting pitchers — one on the rise and the other in a funk.
Lange will start in Friday’s 5 p.m. first game, and Poché will start Saturday. Mainieri isn’t yet naming a starter for Sunday’s final game, though freshman Caleb Gilbert is most likely to toe the rubber.
The numbers back up Lange and Poché’s opposite slides.
Poché, even, called the last month the toughest of his college career. In his last four starts, the lefty has allowed 19 earned runs. He allowed 11 in his first eight starts.
That troubling start to Lange’s season — 24 earned runs and 26 walks in his first seven starts — seems like years ago. In his last five outings, the sophomore from Missouri walked nine and allowed 12 earned runs.
It’s not rocket science to figure it out, Dunn says. It’s all about fastball command, a pitcher barely missing or hitting spots with that primary pitch.
“His last two starts were not Jared Poché caliber. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out,” Dunn said. “Why? Because the inconsistency of command. It wasn’t the strikes. He’s been filling the strike zone up. Just hasn’t been quality strikes. He’s been missing too much location so hitters are putting good swings on them.”
It’s not his “stuff,” Dunn and Poché both say. The velocity is great. The breaking ball is, actually, as good as ever. The location of the fastball is … not there.
“It’s just executing pitches and commanding my fastball,” Poché said. “I don’t think there’s anything major I need to change.”
“It’s all a matter of location for him,” Mainieri said. “There’s no reason to not believe in the kid. He’s a great competitor. We’re going to keep running him out there.”
His counterpart is zoning in at just the right time.
Lange, a freshman all-American last season, is rounding into form, shaking off an opening six weeks that saw his clutch pitching numbers – runners in scoring position – take a tumble.
“It was a two-out walk here, two-out walk there, hit batter there and then boom!” Dunn said. “He’s been able to stay away from that to have that runner on third and one out and get that punch out. That’s been the difference these last four outings.”
Lange says he’s “simplified” his delivery and is making more “directional” pitches toward the plate. His command is back, and he’s optimistic that Poché’s will return soon too.
“He knows the drill. When fastball command is getting away from you, you just go back to the drill work and work hard,” Lange said. “You can’t get into your head too much.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.