Alan Dunn sat in his chair feet away from his boss last Friday, watching each of Alex Lange’s 39 pitches in a long first inning that only yielded one Vanderbilt run but forced Lange into full counts against five of the six hitters.
Minds met inside the LSU dugout while the Tigers faced Vanderbilt pitcher Kyle Wright.
As Paul Mainieri described it, what transpired was “great strategy” — in-game adaptations Lange needed in an inconsistent sophomore season, one in which the proverbial “book” is out on the reigning National Freshman of the Year, who amassed 131 strikeouts and did not lose a game in his rookie season.
Of those 131 strikeouts, Mainieri estimates 80 were on Lange’s power curveball, customarily buried in the dirt. So, after watching the first six Vanderbilt hitters not swing at the pitch bouncing near the plate, Dunn instructed Lange to rely more on his fastball.
“There’s a lot that goes into it just to say, ‘OK, we need to do this,’ ” Dunn said. “You have to watch the game and manage it accordingly. But all that said, you’ve still got to pitch off what that dude on the mound can do — his strength.”
Lange would not cease throwing his patented curveball. He just did so early in the count to bewilder Vanderbilt’s hitters who thought fastball. The fastball they expected came later in the count, and sometimes as strike three.
Adhering to his adjustments, Lange returned to the mound, where he struck out eight and permitted just two hits in the next 5.1 innings of a 3-2 LSU win.
“I felt like (Texas) A&M last year did a really good job laying off the breaking ball, and that was the precedent for them — make me pitch off the fastball and make me throw more fastballs,” Lange said. “That’s what the game of baseball is. In-game adjustments. Pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat, hitter to hitter.”
The Missouri native returns home this weekend to face the school that extended his first collegiate offer and a pitcher — Tanner Houck — who mirrored Lange’s freshman season success last year.
It’s 123 miles from Columbia to Lee’s Summit, where Lange grew up and took a side in the contentious Border War rivalry as a Kansas fan. Missouri offered him after his freshman season in high school.
“Pretty honoring when you get that first offer and get into everything, but this is LSU, and so when I had this opportunity, you can’t pass this up,” Lange said. “It’ll be fun. I’m really excited. They got a cool little park there; it’s getting better. Better atmosphere for baseball up there now that they’re in the SEC and stuff.”
Lange’s first “business trip” home comes on the heels of his best SEC start of the season and at a juncture where he and Dunn have refined his repertoire.
Aside from a diminishing dependence on the curveball, Lange has more confidence in his changeup that Dunn still cautions is developing. Mainieri says the changeup can make Lange more unpredictable.
“It takes a while to get that pitch to what it really is,” Dunn said. “But he’s still using it effectively right now. I wouldn’t say a work in progress, but it’s a pitch he’s still working on. But he’s also comfortable enough to throw it and pitch with it in games. And it’s going to continue to get better.”
Where Lange has faltered, though, is commanding the fastball. Dunn’s entire philosophy — and any pitching philosophy, really — is predicated on commanding this most basic pitch. Lange had one start of fewer than three walks this season, and he issued six apiece in two of his past three starts.
Houck, Lange’s nemesis Saturday, has walked 12 all season, spanning 100.2 innings. A unanimous Freshman All-American last season, Houck sits at 93-95 mph with his fastball, accompanied with a plus sinker. Mainieri, who coached Houck with Team USA last summer, likens the Missouri sophomore to former LSU standout Aaron Nola.
Lange faces a Missouri team hitting .252 — tied for last in the 14-team league. He’ll face friends, too. Brett Bond and Shane Benes, both sophomore Missouri natives whom Lange knows well, will be tasked with facing their friend.
Benes, the son of former Major Leaguer Andy Benes with upper-deck power, will surely have a scouting report. Bond, too. Lay off the curveball.
“Easier said than done to lay off that pitch,” Dunn says. “You can have that philosophy and if you’re executing it, that’s a hard pitch to lay off of.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter ,@Chandler_Rome