Caleb Gilbert was born and raised in Alabama and Auburn country.
Surrounded in a Birmingham suburb by hounds tooth and crimson, orange and blue, the Gilberts decked themselves in the colors of their alma mater, purple and gold, and so did their son.
They routinely attended LSU football games played in Tuscaloosa or Auburn. In fact, Caleb and his parents had end zone seats for the Tigers’ 9-6 overtime win in 2011 at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and they’ve been to the past six LSU-Alabama clashes.
They saw LSU’s baseball team play in the Southeastern Conference tournament nearly every year. Little Caleb often sat with Wally Pontiff Jr.’s family at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. He’s still got a Wally Pontiff-signed baseball in his bedroom and hikes up his socks in memory of the former LSU standout.
“We definitely show our colors,” said Gilbert, now a freshman LSU pitcher. “People there know we’re huge LSU fans.”
He’s an LSU pitcher now, a bullpen rookie who could play a significant role in a 2016 team full of new faces. Gilbert is a guy coach Paul Mainieri compares — yes — to All-American ace Alex Lange. He’s a whiz kid who’s got a 4.2 GPA and made a 98 on a Calculus final last semester.
He’s a Hoover, Alabama, native who says he spent his life “behind enemy lines” before pitching coach Alan Dunn’s scholarship offer opened the door to his destination place.
For LSU this year, he’s a closer — though Mainieri stops short of declaring him so. After all, the Tigers are less than three weeks into the season. Make no mistake though, Gilbert is being groomed as just that.
“Right now, he’ll be the guy we use at the end of the game with the lead,” Mainieri said, smirking. “Is that what you define as a closer?”
So far, Gilbert’s been a jam-buster, entering with runners on base and wiggling out of it.
Mainieri hopes to give him traditional save opportunities as soon as this weekend when LSU (6-2) hosts Fordham (3-4) on Friday night and then twice in a Saturday doubleheader.
A starting pitcher role could be in his future, the coach said. In fact, Dunn and Mainieri disagreed on how to use Gilbert entering this season. Dunn saw him as a starter, Mainieri said. The head coach saw him as a closer. The former could be in his future.
“I think he’s got a chance to be special,” Mainieri said. “You hate to throw terms around like, ‘He reminds you of Alex Lange,’ because that’s an awfully high standard. And I’m not saying he’s going to be as good as Alex Lange, but you see a lot of the similarities there.”
In his three appearances so far, Gilbert has struck out 11 and walked one through a combined five innings on the mound. He’s allowed five hits, and he’s saved his fellow pitchers. Gilbert has inherited a combined four runners in scoring position — at least one in each of his three appearances. He’s inherited a total of six runners on base, allowing just two of them to score.
He struck out the first batter in each of his three appearances, flashing a tailing fastball that can hit 95, a nasty slider and a changeup that left fielder Beau Jordan facing during fall practice.
“Looks like it’s a fastball and then it drops off the table and it comes in and you look like an idiot,” Jordan said. “He’s very deceptive.”
It wasn’t always this easy for Gilbert.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pounder experienced a roller coaster in the summer of 2013, ahead of his junior year at Hoover High School. The scholarship offers came rolling in late in his sophomore season — one that included an 8-2 record, ERA of 1.54 and 84 strikeouts in 68 innings.
LSU offered him that summer after Dunn watched Gilbert hurl a no-hitter. He committed immediately. In his next outing that summer, Gilbert tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his shoulder.
“I probably wasn’t as prepared as I should have been for the game with the health of my arm,” Gilbert said. “When I got there, I warmed up and got ready in the bullpen and the umpires were an hour late. I had to rest and go back out. The first inning, about five pitches in, I felt a pop and knew something was wrong.”
Ten months of rehabilitation followed successful Tommy John surgery. He missed his entire junior season.
LSU’s offer remained.
“A lot of success rates with that surgery,” Dunn said. “Are you still concerned? Yeah, but we felt like he was going to come out strong and knowing his makeup … the kid put the time in.”
He followed through on his commitment, enrolling at LSU, like his parents Paul and Linda decades ago. Linda is from Lake Charles. Paul was born in Baton Rouge before moving to Texas as a young boy.
Paul’s job in the steel industry brought the family to Hoover, a city that’s hosted the SEC tournament for the last 18 years and one that sits two hours from Auburn and an hour from Alabama’s campus in Tuscaloosa.
Caleb’s sister went to Auburn. Don’t worry — the Gilberts aren’t mad. They wanted her to stay close to home, Caleb said. With her little brother, that was never going to happen.
“My eyes,” he said, “were set on this place.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.