HOOVER, Ala. — Almost a decade before Cole Henry earned comparisons to some of the greatest pitchers in LSU history and started Tuesday in the Tigers' first game of the Southeastern Conference tournament, he stood on a mound in Alabama and raised his arms.
The 9-year-old boy had played organized baseball for four years. When he reached the section of youth baseball that let children pitch, his father, Jeff, taught him basic mechanics.
As Henry stood on the mound, he raised both arms beside his head at 90 degree angles. Then he threw toward the plate. He repeated the process, believing his dad had anticipated the moment since Cole's birth.
Jeff pitched in the Pirates organization for two years, but injuries kept him from ever pitching in a minor league game. When Jeff and his wife, Rhonda, had Cole, the oldest of three children, they put a toy baseball in his hands before he crawled.
Cole latched onto the sport, cutting posters out of Sports Illustrated for Kids whenever the magazine printed one of a baseball player. He took each of them to Rhonda, an elementary school librarian, to laminate. The prints covered the walls of his bedroom.
With Jeff as his pitching coach, Cole threw at youth fields, the beach during family vacation, the high schools in Phenix City, Alabama — anywhere. He carried his baseball glove with him.
“Dad,” Cole said, “I want to play in the big leagues one day.”
'Well,” Jeff replied, “you got to know what it takes to get there.”
“What does that mean?” Cole asked.
“You gotta work hard and do the right things,” Jeff said. “It's up to you. I don't want to force you to do anything. If you want to do it, we'll do it. But if you don't want to, then I'm not going to put in the time and effort.”
“I want to do it,” Cole said.
As Cole formed his mechanics, Jeff taught him how to throw a two-seam fastball and a changeup. The pitches looked the same from the youth mound. Jeff didn’t care. He wanted his son to develop the feel for the pitches so that they worked when Henry got older.
For the next few years, Jeff chirped at his son from inside the dugout, trying to mold Cole's focus. If Cole glanced at his father, Jeff told him to look away, to focus on the catcher’s mitt.
“As he got older, I'd be louder,” Jeff said. “I'd try to be the loudest person there. If he could block me out, he could block anybody out.”
Cole ignored his father’s shouts by the time he reached eighth grade. Jeff stopped. That same year, Cole entered the season as his middle school’s fourth- or fifth-best pitcher.
Cole's team was losing one game 5-0 in the second inning. Thick sheets of rain fell, pausing the game. Cole's team pulled its starting pitcher after the downpour. The head coach approached Cole in the dugout.
“Hey, you're going in,” he said. “Make the most of it.”
Cole threw about four shutout innings. His team won.
“That's when I felt like I started learning how to pitch,” Henry said.
Henry began playing travel baseball, and by his sophomore year of high school, his fastball touched 94 mph. Then he missed most of his junior season with a stress fracture in his right arm.
When Henry returned to games, he played with Drew Bianco, LSU’s freshman infielder, on the travel circuit. Bianco watched Henry throwing for the first time since the injury faster than 90 mph with a curveball that dove out of the air.
“This guy ain’t coming to LSU,” Bianco thought.
The Cubs considered drafting Henry in the supplemental round of the MLB draft, Jeff said, but the family wanted $3.5 million. The Cubs didn’t match the price, so Henry, instead drafted in the 38th round, went to LSU.
Henry missed all of fall practice because of a stress reaction in his arm. When he pitched again and LSU experimented with Bianco at catcher, Bianco caught Henry in the bullpen. Bianco hadn’t played catcher since eighth grade.
“He's throwing a four-seam that runs and his two-seam is running this much,” Bianco said, spreading his hands about two feet apart, “I'm like, 'Dude, they're both running. You have anything that's straight?'”
One of eight freshman pitchers, Henry didn’t make the opening-day weekend rotation. Missing fall practice delayed his emergence, but he started the fourth game of the season. He gave up four runs (three earned) in less than three innings.
“Maybe the kid still has a lot room for growth,” coach Paul Mainieri thought.
Less than month into the season, Henry established himself in the weekend rotation, one of the only stable pieces of an injury-filled pitching staff. Mainieri compared his potential to Aaron Nola and Kevin Gausman and Alex Lange, former LSU pitchers all selected in the first round of the draft.
Cole Henry, who’s 4-2 with a 3.26 ERA, will pitch for the first time since April 19 when LSU baseball begins the SEC tournament.
Henry struck out 12 batters against Florida, the most by an LSU pitcher this season. Then, as LSU intended to make him its Friday night starter, he woke up with tenderness in his elbow and missed four starts.
When LSU played on the road as Henry recovered, Henry went home to work with his dad. They reviewed videos of his mechanics one weekend, threw another, getting him ready to pitch again.
After a month of rehab and rest, Henry felt good enough to pitch during the SEC tournament. Mainieri started him in an elimination game against South Carolina on the first day.
Henry’s family drove to Hoover, Alabama, to watch Henry pitch. Jeff hadn't missed a start this season. Rhonda had split her time between Cole and his two brothers. The whole family came for this one.
The boy who once learned to pitch by raising his arms beside his head, who pledged himself to reaching the major leagues, was about to pitch the first postseason game of his college career.
"A lot of days, it's very emotional," Jeff said, pausing as he began to sniffle. "Everybody wants to see their kid play D-I." He stopped again. Eleven seconds passed. "And be successful, but nobody knows what it takes to get there.
"Cole and I have spent a lot of time together training and working for this moment. … Some days, it doesn't feel like it's real.”