OMAHA, Neb. — The man they call Psycho is reserved for now.
On this day, Zack Hess is relaxed as he takes time to answer questions before LSU’s light practice at Bellevue East High School. There are no signs he is unhinged as his nickname suggests. He is completely engaged with those asking about his alter ego, and he is thoughtful and composed when he answers.
“I’m not really sure when that started to come around,” Hess said, referring to his nickname. “But guys are rolling with it and I think it kind of gets them a little bit excited, so I’m just kind of wearing it right now.”
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There’s proof he embraces this moniker. His hair is mostly hiding under his hat, but it's darker than usual. He was one of many LSU players to engage in a little team-building exercise Tuesday night by drastically altering their hairstyle.
Hess opted for a signature look. His usual blonde hair is now jet black. Shaved into the back is the distinct pattern worn by Charlie Sheen in the movie “Major League.” Sheen’s character was the hard-throwing and hard-living Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn.
It was Hess’ idea to go full Wild Thing. It fit the mythology that’s starting to grow around his young career.
“I’m the team psycho, apparently,” Hess said. “So I was like, ‘I don’t think there’s a bigger psycho in baseball than Rick Vaughn.’ ”
This is the calm. If he gets a chance to pitch Friday in LSU’s clash against top-seeded Oregon State? That’s when the storm comes.
The Zack Hess who answers questions is not the same Zack Hess that pitches. Game day Hess is full throttle. He is a 6-foot-6 intimidator with a mean disposition and meaner stuff.
Ask Florida State about Psycho Hess. The Seminoles cut a six-run deficit down to four with two swings of the bat in the ninth inning and were riding a wave of momentum when Hess entered the game with nobody out.
Hess tamed that wave with 97 and 98 mph fastballs that painted corners and zoomed past bats with ease. Florida State only managed two foul balls and walk against Hess. He rung up Tyler Holton with a nasty 2-2 slider, his third strikeout of the inning, and started screaming as soon as the ball hit catcher Michael Papierski’s mitt.
“He’s crazy,” Papierski said after the game. “I don’t know how else to describe him. He goes on the mound, and it’s a presence that he’s going to get it done.”
He’s amped, juiced, whatever you want to call it. For some, that can be a disadvantage. For Hess, it’s energy he can tap into.
The 98 that flashed on the stadium radar gun in the ninth against Florida State marked a high point for Hess this season.
“That’s the thing I like, he’s able to harness that intensity, harness it to execute pitches,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “It’s pitching, it’s not throwing. He’s not throwing to the radar. Everything is made about the radar — oh, he’s throwing 97! Yes, he is throwing that velocity, but where is he throwing the ball in the strike zone?
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“If you looked (Wednesday), those fastballs he was throwing that were just missing? That’s command. He was commanding that at that velocity, then has a power breaking ball to back it up.”
Hess began the season as a starting pitcher, part of a promise LSU coach Paul Mainieri made to Hess when he committed to make his way to LSU from his home state of Virginia.
Mainieri said scouts near Hess’ home town projected him as a reliever at the next level, meaning his stock as a prospect was not as high as it could’ve been. Though Hess said he was contacted by a team in the first five rounds of last year’s draft, he said the offer was not sweet enough to sway him from LSU.
But after set up man Doug Norman was lost for the year with an elbow injury and closer Hunter Newman was put on the shelf with a back injury, Mainieri shifted Hess to a bullpen role.
“I just felt like we had no choice. I went to him and talked to him about it, and he was all for anything that would help the team,” Mainieri said.
Since? Hess has thrived.
In 19 appearances since his full-time move to the bullpen, Hess has gone 4-1 with a 1.69 ERA, striking out a whopping 43 batters in 26.2 innings. Take away one clunker against Tulane, and that ERA drops to 0.68 with a 0.95 WHIP.
“I think he’s found his niche is what’s happened,” said junior right-hander Alex Lange. “He’s been great back there, he has a chance to come out there and blow cheese late in the game, which is what he loves.
“He’s an adrenaline junkie, and he’s in the right place.”
Even so, it doesn’t take long after the game for Psycho Hess to fade away. Maybe 10 minutes after his demonstrative called third strike against Florida State, he strolled into the locker room like nothing had happened.
“When it’s over, it’s back to being levelheaded,” Hess said. “And somewhat normal.”
The Psycho Hess launching precision-strike missiles to Papierski not the constant Zack Hess. Mainieri wanted to make that clear. The “somewhat normal” Hess is, truly, just normal.
“He’s an unbelievably intelligent kid, a really bright kid, as bright as any kid we have on our team,” Mainieri said. “And he’s a really cool customer. When you talk to him, even during very intense moments, there’s no quivering in his voice, there’s no glare, just very rational thoughts and rational comments that he makes.
“But when he gets on that mound and gets that signal, it’s a different animal out there.”
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