Inside a Baton Rouge condo, a small, framed picture from the pinnacle of Caleb Gilbert’s career sits on a side table. It’s one of many pieces of memorabilia from Gilbert's years on the LSU baseball team.
The photo shows Gilbert after he pitched 7 ⅓ innings to send LSU to the 2017 College World Series finals. He stands in the middle of a huddle surrounded by smiling teammates. Gilbert doesn’t like the spotlight, but all his teammates watch as coach Paul Mainieri hands him the game ball. Gilbert’s mother, Lynda, loves the photo.
For Gilbert, memories of that day and that season are foggy now, distorted by time and pain.
Even though Gilbert’s healthy, he hasn’t pitched this season. He lost his mechanics his junior year playing with an injured shoulder, and he has not rediscovered how to pitch like he did that day against Oregon State.
“It's foreign,” Gilbert said. “Throwing a baseball is foreign to me now.”
As his senior season nears its end, Gilbert is trying to find what he lost. He wants his career to end on the mound, satisfied with his accomplishments, instead of in a dugout wondering what could have been, watching the Tigers play without him.
The son of two LSU graduates, Gilbert dreamed of playing baseball for the Tigers.
His parents, Lynda and Paul Gilbert, raised him a few minutes from Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, site of the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament. Gilbert went every time LSU played until he graduated high school.
Growing up, he wore No. 31 because of former LSU infielder Wally Pontiff Jr. Gilbert focused on playing at LSU. Professional baseball seemed distant, unfathomable.
Gilbert visited SEC schools by his sophomore year of high school. He went to Alabama, LSU’s fiercest rival, as a recruit with his dad.
At the end of the trip, former Crimson Tide coach Mitch Gaspard met with Gilbert in his office. Gaspard offered a scholarship. He told Gilbert how much Alabama wanted him. After the visit, Gilbert’s dad filled with pride. His son could play college baseball. But Gilbert wanted to go somewhere else.
“If this is the only offer I get,” Gilbert told his dad, “I'm still going to be an LSU football fan.”
Four years later, Gilbert stepped onto the mound at the College World Series to start an elimination game against Oregon State. He had received the scholarship offer from LSU the summer after his sophomore year. He committed a week later. The Tigers stuck with him when he underwent Tommy John surgery his junior year of high school.
Gilbert pitched well the second half of the 2017 season. After Eric Walker hurt his arm during the postseason, Mainieri started Gilbert. A loss would end the Tigers’ season. A win would send them to the finals.
Gilbert had spent the season pitching out of the bullpen while making the occasional start. He had not pitched more than six innings in one game. He had not started since the SEC tournament a month earlier. He faced the No. 1 team in the country.
Used to coming in as a reliever, Gilbert pitched out of the stretch as the sun beat down on the field. Broadcasters wondered how long he could pitch. Mainieri didn’t take Gilbert out of the game until the eighth inning. Gilbert shut out Oregon State for seven innings until allowing a solo home run. His teammates hugged him as he waited to hand Mainieri the ball.
Discomfort had crept into Gilbert’s right shoulder toward the end of his sophomore year. It intensified before LSU began spring practice.
LSU expected Gilbert to start. He had pitched a legendary game against Oregon State, and he wondered about a professional career. As a junior, Gilbert had an opportunity to pitch in the weekend rotation, giving him the chance to fulfill his childhood dream. He didn’t tell anyone about the pain filling his shoulder.
“Next thing you know,” Gilbert said, “the season crumbled beneath me.”
Gilbert’s injury became obvious. After starting the season opener, he pitched with varied results. LSU left him off the travel roster one weekend. Then he moved to the bullpen.
Gilbert thought he could help an injury-riddled pitching staff. He continued to play, receiving shots to numb his muscles, but his mechanics changed as his body adjusted to the pain.
“It had a big effect on his arm action,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “It got out of whack. When you lose your arm path, you're going to lose the feel of where you want to locate pitches.”
During the offseason, Gilbert had surgery to repair his shoulder. He felt healthy again, but the habits he formed during his junior season never left.
“That's where we are today,” Gilbert said. “Still.”
Throughout his senior season, Gilbert has tried to locate the mechanics that made him successful two years ago. He can throw across the outfield without pain, but there’s a difference between throwing and pitching. He has tried various drills, including one that requires throwing into a sock-like sleeve on his hand. Nothing has worked.
During LSU's home games, Gilbert has watched from the dugout, forcing himself to be positive so he doesn’t distract his teammates. He has tried to process the past three seasons, how he went from the pinnacle of his career to sitting in the dugout unable to help.
“I feel so distanced from how good I once was,” Gilbert said. “I've been trying so hard to get back.”
Earlier this week, Gilbert stood on LSU’s bullpen mound. Dunn crouched behind him, pulling his waist and pushing his upper back. Then Dunn stepped back and Gilbert threw a pitch. Dunn crouched behind him again. They repeated the process. Another pitch. Then another.
Once the drill ended, Dunn bumped Gilbert's fist as they walked toward the dugout.
There’s not much time left in Gilbert’s final season. LSU has one more game, on Saturday against Auburn, before the beginning of the postseason. It will be Gilbert’s senior day.
Sometimes this year, if the game’s out of reach, Gilbert has heard fans say, “Put in Gilbert.” The support makes him smile.
"It's unfortunate because he never bounced back from the surgery the way we thought he would,” Mainieri said. “But if he never pitched another inning, threw another pitch for LSU, his career is firmly established as far as his legacy.”
What's next? Gilbert hasn't decided. His parents think his baseball career will end with LSU's final game this season. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering, and his dad said several firms are interested in hiring him. Gilbert hasn't thought about life after baseball yet. There are games left on LSU's schedule, more time for him to practice and enjoy life with his teammates.
On Saturday, Gilbert will put on his LSU jersey inside Alex Box Stadium for possibly the last time. The Tigers clinched the fifth seed in the SEC tournament, but they are not guaranteed to host an NCAA regional. He may never come back as a player.
Throughout the day, Gilbert will think about his career, digesting his four years at LSU. He'll think of his teammates, his parents, his coaches. All the people who helped him accomplish the dreams of his childhood.
After Mainieri handed Gilbert the ball for beating Oregon State, Gilbert placed it in a basket at the condo filled with other meaningful baseballs. The memories wait for him there.
His career unraveled after it reached its highest point, but he's still trying to come back, even if just for an inning. Dunn continues to work with him, thinking maybe something will click. There’s only one way to find out, so Gilbert keeps pitching, refusing to give up hope.
“It would really be nice,” Gilbert said, “to cap it off with some time on the mound.”