The first month of the season couldn’t have gone much better for LSU senior pitcher Jared Poché.
“He's just better than he's ever been,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
There was his no-hitter on opening day against Army, making him the first individual Tiger to hold a team hitless for a full game (this one lasting seven innings) since 1979. He nearly repeated the feat a week later, giving up his first hit to the first Maryland batter he faced in the ninth inning.
There is his statistical line, an absurd thing that avid video game players would have a hard time replicating: 4-0, 0.00 ERA, 29 IP, 8 H, 2 BB, 18 K and a .086 batting average against.
Those triple zeroes lined up next to the 29 means he has started his season by firing 29 consecutive scoreless innings, the second-longest streak in LSU history behind one turned in by program icon Ben McDonald, who held opponents scoreless for 44 straight innings in 1989.
He'll look to extend the streak at 6:30 p.m. Saturday when the Tigers host Georgia for the second game of their Southeastern Conference-opening series.
For now, the streak has earned him the right to grow a mustache for as long as it continues, breaking Mainieri’s rule barring facial hair for his players. Of course, it depends on whom one asks when determining whether the mustache falls under the “couldn’t go much better” category.
“My mom hates it, and my girlfriend hates it,” Poché said. “Other than that, I think everybody else is on board. My dad is even trying to grow a mustache right now. His is white — salt and pepper. It's a little bit thicker than mine.
“It's all about getting the job done on game day. I kind of see it as a distraction, but they're loving it. As long as I'm going out there, taking care of business and giving us a chance to win, they're all for it.”
All of this begs the question: Where did this come from?
For sure, it was a major victory for LSU when Poché decided to turn down a professional contract with the San Diego Padres and return for his senior season. The southpaw has been one of the steadiest pitchers in Mainieri’s tenure, going 9-4 with an ERA between 2.45 and 3.35 in each of his first three seasons.
But for as good as Poché has been — and make no mistake, he has been hugely effective — he has never been as utterly dominant as he has been through the first month of this season.
So where did it come from?
“One hundred percent experience,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “This dude’s been here four years now. There’s nothing he hasn’t seen. When he goes out the first two or three innings and you look at his stuff and say, ‘Man, that’s not his great stuff. How is he going to manage the game?' ... he doesn’t sweat it. He’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to find it.’ ”
Mainieri agreed. Although he noted Poché has had better command and has shown improved secondary pitches, particularly his two-seam fastball, that alone doesn’t account for all of those consecutive goose eggs Poché has hung on the scoreboard.
Those improvements, combined with Poché’s ability to reach back into his vast memory bank, have made all the difference.
“Because of his experience and his confidence and all those other things that come with the career that he's had, I think he has a knack for making the big pitch at the big time,” Mainieri said.
That’s the key, as well as Poché can figure. He recalled instances early in his career when he wouldn’t be able to get a 3-1 pitch over for a strike or make the pitch with runners on base that would induce weak contact for an easy inning-ending out.
“Obviously I'm not hitting my spot or throwing the nastiest pitch every pitch,” he said. “But if I'm doing it most times, in the big situations — make the key pitch to get out of an inning with guys on base — then I'm doing my job.”
It has been a great month, and it almost never happened. Poché was pretty sure he was going to sign with the Padres after they selected him in the 14th round of last year’s MLB draft.
But the Padres didn’t seem to make him a priority. They didn’t meet his desired signing bonus, and they were not aggressive in pursuing his services. Then Poché saw teammates Kramer Robertson, Cole Freeman and Greg Deichmann decide they were returning for one more go.
“I kind of wanted to sign early on … but as the summer progressed, seeing the value they placed on me, seeing everybody come back obviously outweighed it,” Poché said.
Poché already is calling it the best decision he has ever made. And, if he keeps anywhere close to the same pace he’s currently at, he probably won’t have to worry about being wanted next time around.