Inconsistent performances have defined LSU’s pitching staff this season, but as the Tigers begin their Southeastern Conference schedule, they may have inched toward stability.
For just the second time this season, No. 10 LSU will use the same weekend rotation it did the week before when it hosts Kentucky at Alex Box Stadium. The three-game series begins at 7 p.m. Friday.
Zack Hess will pitch Friday, Cole Henry on Saturday and Eric Walker will start Sunday — just as they did last week against Cal.
So far, the rotation has not been firm. The Tigers opened the season with Hess, freshman Landon Marceaux and freshman Jaden Hill as weekend starters.
Hess, Marceaux, Hill, Henry and Walker have all pitched at least once in a weekend game as LSU searches for a consistent model.
“I think our pitching staff as a whole has taken some strides forward these last few games,” Hess said. “We know that we're not there yet.”
Injuries have contributed to the shuffling of the rotation. Hill has not pitched in three weeks because of soreness in his arm, but he started a pre-throwing routine and may play catch as soon as Saturday.
Henry, who replaced Marceaux in the rotation, threw four shutout innings last Saturday against Cal before he felt tightness in his upper back, behind his throwing shoulder. LSU pulled him from the game at 63 pitches. Henry rested for a couple days after his start, a decision coach Paul Mainieri said “did him wonders.”
Henry threw a light bullpen session Wednesday, and Mainieri anticipates he will be fine this weekend.
LSU decided to remove Marceaux from his spot as the Saturday starter after he gave up six runs and four walks over 1⅓ innings against Texas on March 2. Marceaux threw three perfect innings in his next start Tuesday at Northwestern State.
“Even after Landon threw the other day, he didn't feel great,” Mainieri said. “We're holding our breath he feels good.”
If Marceaux feels ready to pitch, he will likely come in after Walker, who has not regained the endurance or the stuff he had before he underwent Tommy John surgery two summers ago.
Earlier this week, Henry’s status was in limbo, Hill had not begun pre-throwing and Marceaux had not pitched since that day in Texas. But now, all three freshmen, so key to the outcome of LSU’s season, are making progress.
At the same time, two other LSU pitchers are looking better. Ma’Khail Hilliard, who missed all of preseason practice with shoulder soreness, “threw the ball the best he has” over two innings at Northwestern State, Mainieri said.
Chase Costello, unavailable recently after pitching in three of LSU’s first four games, may return by the time LSU plays at Georgia next weekend.
“We're down a couple of guys,” Mainieri said, referring to Hill and Costello. “Once those guys get back, assuming the rest of our staff stays healthy, we'll keep getting stronger.”
LSU enters its conference schedule this weekend with the highest ERA (4.83) in the SEC. Its closer, Todd Peterson, has blown two saves. It has managed injuries throughout the year, and it continues to do so.
Against Kentucky, another problem related to the pitchers — throwing out runners — will play into the outcome of the games.
The Wildcats lead the conference in stolen bases with 46. LSU has only thrown out one runner this year.
“They've got six or seven guys in their lineup they're going to run with,” Mainieri said. “The best way is to not let them get on base, but of course, that's not going to happen every time.”