After what he termed one of the more exciting fall practices of his LSU tenure, LSU coach Paul Mainieri sat down with The Advocate to assess where his team is as it heads into final exams and, eventually, home for winter break.
Part I of the interview focuses exclusively on Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn’s veteran staff that returns two weekend arms and has experienced depth in the bullpen. For a second straight season, however, Jake Latz will be sidelined with elbow issues, though a glimmer of hope remains that he could rejoin the mix in April.
The inability to find a third starter was troublesome last season, but Mainieri has high hopes for Austin Bain, who had surgery to remove bone spurs in his shoulder and missed fall practice.
Bain, coupled with a few newcomers, have impressed Mainieri and give him options for a third or fourth starter, along with a stable of bullpen arms.
Part II of our Q and A, where we delve into replacing eight of nine starters in the lineup and how this batch of newcomers adjusted to college ball, will be online Friday afternoon.
Q: You guys have struggled to establish a consistent third starter in the last two seasons. Did anyone separate themselves in the fall as someone who could compete for that role?
“I don’t think so, not from fall practice. I still think a very strong candidate for the third starter is going to be Austin Bain, and he didn’t pitch at all this fall. But of the guys that threw, certainly returning players, I thought Jake Godfrey at times distinguished himself, but I think the other guys in the mix for it are all new players. John Valek, it seemed like every time he threw he did a good job. He’s not overpowering, but he knows how to pitch. There’s value in that crafty left-hander, but I’ll have to decide if he’s going to be more valuable as a starting pitcher in the midweek or a third starter or is he more valuable coming out of the bullpen as a left-handed option, given the fact that we don’t have that many left-handed options. And then Riley Smith and Caleb Gilbert, one JUCO kid and one freshman, I thought showed a lot of promise. They obviously have good velocity, Caleb came here with a pretty good breaking pitch and I think Riley is developing his breaking pitch. Riley’s got a super changeup already. Caleb already throws strikes, has inordinate poise for a freshman, very intelligent young man. So I think all those guys are still options as we go into the spring.
And (Dunn) and I have kind of discussed some possible scenarios. Remember, the third and fourth starter, whether you’re third or fourth really doesn’t matter in the first three weeks of the season because the midweek games count the same as the weekend games. Sometimes the midweek games may even be a little more challenging because we have road games at Lamar and at Nicholls. We’ve got some challenging midweek games. Once the SEC schedule starts, whoever I feel is the best third starter will pitch on Sunday. But that could mean we might have a guy pitching in the middle of the week or on Sunday in the first three weeks who we also feel is so valuable that we have to move him into the bullpen for the SEC schedule, which means another fourth starter could emerge at some point. I don’t think we have to make those decisions now.”
Q: Speaking on Bain, what gives you so much confidence in him, even though he didn’t throw in the fall?
Q: The top two of your pitching staff are pretty locked in. How were Alex Lange and Jared Poche through the fall?
“I thought both of them were outstanding for most of the fall and at times showed they really improved. I think Lange’s ability to throw that changeup will make him better than he was last year. Poche learned to cut his fastball a little bit, which gives him basically a fourth pitch now to go along with his curveball, changeup and fastball. When Poche was throwing in (the Purple-Gold World Series), his velocity was higher than it’d been and he maintained it a little bit, which was exciting.
Q: Parker Bugg seemed like a guy tasked with getting the final outs in tense situations during the Purple-Gold World Series. Is he a guy you’re looking at as a possible closer?
“We wanted him to pitch in that role. I thought he threw the best he has all fall in his two outings in Purple-Gold. Certainly, he’s a candidate, as is Jesse Stallings and we know Hunter Newman is going to be there. Newman pitched great for us last year, pitched great in the summer, great again this fall. Hunter Newman is going to be a very important cog in our bullpen. I think those are three guys we’re going to be able to count on coming out of the bullpen.
What we decide to do with that third or fourth starter is going to have a lot to do with what our bullpen looks like. Does Bain become one of those two starters? Who else are we going to give the first chance to? We haven’t totally decided on that and who we give a chance to start early in the year may end up moving into the bullpen before we go into SEC play and another guy may step in as a fourth starter. I think we have some options there.”
Q: You spoke of Gilbert and Smith, but what other pitching newcomers stood out to you?
“Well (Nick) Bush didn’t because he was hurt the whole fall. He’s coming along great. His surgery wasn’t Tommy John, though it was surgery on his elbow. They had to move a nerve from one side of his elbow to another side. Not as uncommon as you think it is, but it doesn’t have as long a rehab as Tommy John does, so we think he’ll be ready to pitch for us in the spring. Obviously he hasn’t pitched competitively yet, so we don’t know what he’s going to do, but he’s a good athlete with a good arm. We envision him being a guy that could pick up the slack of losing Zac Person.
I think Cole McKay, and I told (Dunn) this at the end of the fall, if you think of Cole McKay of what you expected to see and what you actually saw, you’d probably be disappointed. Everybody talked about him throwing 93-94 but we didn’t see that velocity this fall. But if you look at Cole McKay just in terms of ‘Is he a piece that can help us this spring?’ my quick answer is yes. He threw a lot of strikes, threw some clutch fastball strikes on 3-2 pitches during games and showed real good feel for his curveball I thought. McKay might have a role where he helps us and hopefully continues to develop and get that velocity back to where we hope it can be.”