OMAHA, Neb. — It came as a surprise to Zac Person when LSU coach Paul Mainieri delivered the news to the left-handed reliever: You’ll start in the College World Series elimination game Thursday.
Person was told that about 10 minutes before he met with a host of reporters Wednesday afternoon. He hopped around to each media station having to hold in the news. Mainieri hadn’t made the announcement and wouldn’t until players were finished being interviewed.
A reporter suggested to Person that some of the media hoard knew the news. He smiled.
“I’m excited,” he said.
Mainieri made the big scoop official a few minutes later, announcing Person as the Tigers starter for the game against TCU (50-14) on Thursday night at TD Ameritrade Park — a not-so-surprising decision, given the Horned Frogs’ lefty-heavy lineup.
The coach revealed a more stunning development later: LSU might not necessarily use as many relievers as they normally do in a method Mainieri refers to as “Jack Wholestaff.”
Person, making just his third career start in two years in Baton Rouge, will get a shot to eat up multiple innings on the mound — something the Tigers surely hope he can do, given the circumstances. LSU (54-11) must win three straight elimination games to reach the best-of-three CWS championship series Monday.
Thursday night’s winner must beat Vanderbilt twice — Friday and Saturday — to get there.
It’s something Mainieri is thinking about. After all, how could he not with LSU’s prickly pitching predicament. The Tigers have been unable to find a consistent No. 3 starter this season, turning to the reliever-heavy whole-staff method.
“We’re here to win the tournament. You deal with the first game, but you always have your eye on the route down,” he said.
Mainieri didn’t reveal his exact pitching plan Thursday, but Person doesn’t have a pitch count or an inning minimum. History said that he may not last much more than a few innings.
Person, a former LSU-Eunice starter, hasn’t pitched more than three innings in one game at LSU. That came in a 6-2 win over Auburn in April — the same weekend ace Alex Lange rested a sore arm. Mainieri suggested Wednesday that the Tigers could use the same approach they did in that game. Person pitched three innings, Parker Bugg took the next four, and Jesse Stallings pitched the final two.
“Good chance you might see that again,” Mainieri said.
So will it be Jack Wholestaff? Kind of. The coach has approached Game 3s in a variety of fashions this year.
He’s used eight to 10 pitchers, with no one throwing more than two innings. He’s used six pitchers, with a starter hurling three to five innings. And then there’s LSU’s method against Auburn and, maybe, Thursday: Let your best two to three relievers split up the entire game.
“We’re going to manage the game,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “It’s manage whatever it takes to continue playing. That has worked out for us all year. I’m confident in our guys to do the job that we send out there.”
Either way, the whole-staff method has worked well. Dunn and Mainieri have pieced together 13 games using that plan. The Tigers are 13-0 in those games, many against midweek competition.
They’ve produced an ERA of 2.34 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 98-29.
“It seems like, for the most part, when we’ve gone into it with a plan, it’s worked pretty well,” Mainieri said. “The times we used a lot of pitchers and it doesn’t do well, it’s when it’s reactionary to what’s happening in a game versus a proactive approach.”
Players have confidence in the pitching plan. They also know that rough innings are more probable than with, say, ace Lange or, even, No. 2 pitcher Jared Poché on the bump.
“It’s not going to be one guy for eight or nine innings,” outfielder Chris Sciambra said. “Everyone is going to have an inning or two. They might give up a run here or there. We’re going to treat it like a Sunday — got to score runs, got to take advantage of every opportunity. Probably going to be extra aggressive on the base paths.”
Mainieri isn’t saving any pitchers — aside from starters Poché and Lange. Poché is set to start against Vanderbilt on Friday if the Tigers win Thursday. LSU will “whole staff” the Saturday game against the Commodores, who have hard-throwing All-Americans Walker Buehler (4-2, 2.97) and Carson Fulmer (13-2, 1.95) available.
All 11 LSU relievers are available in the game Thursday despite the pressing need for fresh arms to handle this three-games-in-three-days stretch.
“If things go according to plan, then we have it set up for Friday and set up for Saturday,” Mainieri said. “If you don’t win, the season is over. What good is it to save somebody for a game that’ll never happen?”
Everyone is fresh, too. Person, for instance, has thrown a combined 25 pitches in two appearances over the past eight games. He’s ready to go for however long he can.
“He’s been tremendous all year for us,” shortstop Alex Bregman said of Person. “Big reason we’re here. We know he’s going to compete.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.