One way or the other, LSU will likely spend a large chunk of its season with a freshman in the weekend rotation.
Right-handers Eric Walker and Zack Hess will spend roughly the first three weeks of the season trying to prove why they belong in the weekend rotation. Walker will get the first crack Sunday, while Hess will try to prove himself as a midweek starter.
It may seem like a lot to ask of a youngster for a team that has national championship aspirations, but this certainly isn’t the first time LSU has trotted out a freshman on the weekend under coach Paul Mainieri — and those other players turned out to be some of the best in Mainieri’s tenure.
Among the list of recent LSU pitchers to spend all or the majority of their freshman season in the weekend rotation: Alex Lange, Jared Poché, Aaron Nola and Kevin Gausman.
Gausman and Nola were top-10 picks in the Major League Baseball draft and are currently in the big leagues, a track Lange figures to follow after this season. Poché is three wins shy of becoming the sixth pitcher in LSU history to record 30 wins.
That’s not to say Walker and Hess are destined to go on to storied LSU careers. But the way Mainieri sees it, if the talent is there, go with it.
“I’m a big believer in, if all factors are considered equal, you go with the veteran guy,” Mainieri said. “But if the young, inexperienced player has a better chance of getting the job done because of his talent, then you’ve got to bite the bullet and go with him. The only way he’s going to gain experience is by running him out there.”
So what does Mainieri need to see in a freshman to be willing to trust him in a weekend spot?
Talent is the obvious first answer. Lange, Poché, Nola and Gausman all possess an extraordinary amount of it. But LSU wouldn’t go after players it did not deem talented.
What Mainieri really wants to see is someone who is not going to lose LSU a game — either through inability to compose oneself with thousands of fans in the stands or through an inability throw the ball over the plate.
“If you walk batters, if you can’t throw strikes consistently, it really doesn’t matter how good your arm is, it doesn’t matter how good your breaking ball is — you’ll have a tough time winning,” Mainieri said. “It’s hard for me to be patient with pitchers that can’t throw strikes.
“Basically, that’s what I saw in all those guys. They had great poise, composure and self confidence, they had talent, they were competitors, but they also were going to throw the ball over the plate.”
There may be some growing pains — not many can go 12-0 with a 1.97 ERA as a freshman like Lange did — but Mainieri can live with those.
He pointed to Gausman, who at one point late in his freshman season was 2-5 with an ERA north of 4.00. He pointed to Nola, who gave up five runs in the first inning of his first Southeastern Conference start.
“Imagine if I would’ve given up on him after that first inning?” Mainieri said. “The guy went on to win 30 ballgames in three years.”
Mainieri said he must demand the basics of starting pitching out of Walker and Hess — being poised, throwing strikes — while also being patient enough to let them develop.
“You’ve got to take it one day at a time. But also, you can’t panic every time something goes wrong, not as the head coach and the pitching coach,” Mainieri said.
"Eric Walker and Zack Hess, to me, are two guys that not only can help us this year but have a bright future. And we’re going to run them out there.”