OMAHA, Neb. — Should the LSU baseball team find itself in a position where it is facing Oregon State in a winner-take-all game, it has confidence that it can turn the ball over to the guy who has been there every time it needed a great performance in a pinch.
If that day comes, Caleb Gilbert will get the nod, a move necessitated when LSU coach Paul Mainieri decided he would rather play it safe after the tightness in Eric Walker’s forearm returned Monday. LSU knows that, with Gilbert, it will send a repertoire as impressive as anybody’s against Oregon State.
“His stuff plays,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “It’s power stuff. It’s a plus fastball with a mixture of off-speed pitches that complements that. That stuff definitely plays as you’re trying to shorten the game.
“The thing that’s really jumped out for me is, if you look at the number of walks throughout the course of the season, stats-wise, that’s when your stuff plays. When you’re getting in some bad counts and you can go in there and get up in counts with that type of stuff, you’ve got a chance to really be successful.”
LSU also knows Gilbert will probably be comfortable in an situation he didn’t expect himself to be in. Filling in has kind of been his thing lately.
There was the Southeastern Conference tournament opener against Missouri, when Gilbert was named the starting pitcher the night before after Todd Peterson was suspended for a violation of team rules. He responded with five strong innings, a season high.
There was his Baton Rouge regional performance against Texas Southern, when he took over earlier than expected for Jared Poché in a tighter-than-expected contest and struck out six in 2.2 innings. And the Baton Rouge super regional, when he again bailed out Poché and fired 5.2 magnificent innings in a winning effort.
Then there was Monday, when Gilbert suddenly had to get himself ready when Walker, after two mostly strong innings, signaled he could not go any longer. While Gilbert was chased after 2.2 innings, he did an excellent job keeping an outstanding offense at bay before an error derailed his start.
All of this is coming from a pitcher who, just two months ago, started to look like he was lost in the shuffle. It was a figurative gut check followed by what might’ve been a literal gut check.
Gilbert was filling in as LSU’s closer when Hunter Newman went down with a back injury earlier this season, and he remained there briefly after Newman returned, but his stint in the role didn’t last long.
LSU held a 3-0 lead in the ninth inning of its series finale against Texas A&M on April 1. If the Tigers hung on, they would’ve won the series.
LSU called on Gilbert for the ninth. By the time he finished the inning, Texas A&M was leading 4-3, the decisive blow coming on a two-out, three-run homer.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Gilbert soon went through an illness that sapped his strength and caused him to lose weight. After blowing the save against A&M, he didn’t throw in another Southeastern Conference game for several weeks as he worked his way back to full strength.
He finally started to feel like himself before the Alabama series, and that was when he had a chat with Dunn about what he needed to do to rediscover the stuff he showed early in the season, when he carried a 1.86 ERA into that game against the Aggies.
“Just really buying back into the foundation I laid at the beginning of the year, to get to where I was at the beginning,” Gilbert said of their conversation. “Kind of clear the head a little bit and start working toward getting back to where I was.”
Since then, he’s been lights out. In 11 appearances since the start of the Alabama series, Gilbert has struck out almost twice as many batters (29) as he has allowed hits to (15). His ERA in those games is 0.71.
“It’s almost like having two different guys,” Poché said. “He can come out and be 94- to 96-(mph) with a wipeout breaking ball, or he can be a guy that goes five or six innings and goes 90 to 93 with multiple effective pitches. Him stepping up has been a reason for a lot of our success of late. Definitely wouldn’t be here without him.”
The Advocate's Mike Gegenheimer contributed to this story.