LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said ace Zack Hess is back on track to start the season opener Feb. 15 against Louisiana-Monroe after a brief scare with a groin injury.
The news was also good for sophomore righthander Ma’Khail Hilliard, a standout last year who missed fall practice with shoulder soreness. Mainieri said Hilliard has been pain free after throwing Friday and Wednesday.
Hess suffered a strained groin while running in the outfield Jan. 25, the first day of practice, and was held out for five days after trying to come back.
“Zack threw a bullpen two days ago without incident,” Mainieri said. “He felt great and will pitch Friday in our intra-squad scrimmage. He’ll go three innings, about 45 pitches, and I’m assuming he’ll be feeling fine and get the start against ULM. He won’t be out there of an extended time. There’s no way he’ll go more than five innings, and I doubt he’d even do that.”
Hess said he feels 100 percent.
“I’m excited to get back on the mound tomorrow night (scrimmage), get some live game action, and getting ready for ULM,” Hess said. “It tightened up on me after conditioning. We have to be careful with it, monitor it a little bit. We’ve done treatment, gotten it loosened up.”
LSU is looking for a big year out of Hess, a junior righthander who went 7-6 with a 5.05 ERA last season. It was his first as a starter after primarily being used out of the bullpen as a freshman.
Hilliard was the team’s most reliable starter last year with a 9-5 record and 3.79 ERA. He was shut down during the 2018 SEC tournament and had some soreness shortly before spring practice began.
“Hilliard was a little more sharp (Wednesday) than he was his first outing,” Mainieri said. “He didn’t have great command. He looked rusty. Last night looked better, not as good as he can pitch. I just left him in the training room and he said he felt great. That’s the best news we’ve had on Ma’Khail. He should be ready for opening night.”
Hess was one of 55 players named to Golden Spikes Award watchlist announced on Thursday. The award goes to the top college player in the nation and has been won by one LSU player, pitcher Ben McDonald, in 1989.
Righthander Eric Walker continues to progress in his comeback from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, which cost him all of the 2018 season. He is expected to start Sunday against Air Force on opening weekend but will be limited as he rebuilds his arm strength.
“Eric threw two innings in an intra-squad game Monday and I thought he looked really good,” Mainieri said. “He didn’t pitch like he normally does because (pitching coach) Alan (Dunn) wants to continue to develop arm strength and fast ball command, so you didn’t see him throw as many breaking balls and changeups as he typically would.
“I hope on Sunday (scrimmage) he’ll do more pitching, but he’ll be in the same boat as Hess. Assuming everything goes good, it (Air Force) won’t be a very long outing. The most it will be is three innings.”
LSU’s pitching staff has been given a boost by a talented group of freshmen added to Hess and Walker, but other veterans are in the mix for important bullpen roles, Mainieri said.
Todd Peterson, who had six saves last year, is “unquestionably” back in the closer’s role with others like Matt Beck and Devin Fontenot looking strong in support.
“He’s coming into his own,” Mainieri said of Peterson. “He’s a leader, he’s very dedicated and he has great stuff.
“Beck and Fontenot have been throwing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen them. Not only do they have talent, but they are veterans. Caleb (Gilbert) is a little delayed in his comeback from arm surgery. He’s not throwing the ball as well as some of those other guys. Those first three will be extremely vital to our bullpen. They our best bullpen arms at the end of last year.”
Mainieri said he continues to be amazed by freshmen pitchers Landon Marceau, Jaden Hill and Caleb Henry.
“These kids are a different level of freshmen coming in,” he said.
Marceau is still in line to start the Saturday game against Army on Feb. 16. Hill threw five shutout innings in a scrimmage and Henry has looked good despite giving up a three-run double to Drew Bianco.
“I will have to decide how to use them after the first week,” he said of Hill and Henry. “One will start Tuesday and the other Wednesday.
“Marceau been terrific. Every time I challenge him and say Hill and Henry are throwing the ball well, Marceau goes out and dominates. The kid likes challenges”
Mainieri and LSU players sported new gold batting practice jerseys and camouflage caps at Thursday’s practice. The caps will be worn on opening weekend when LSU plays Army and Air Force.
“We’re trying to get the feel and the look,” Mainieri said. “It’s our way of showing appreciation to our military. As much as hunting is a big part of our life down here, it’s not so we’re camouflaged.”
Catcher Brock Mathis has been showing power at the expense of Alex Box Stadium. Twice he has hit home runs that caused minor damage to the scoreboard in left field, which includes a brand new video board.
“I said, ‘Man, I don’t mind if you do that in games, but do you have to do that in practice’?” Mainieri laughed. “I don’t mind us having to fix the scoreboard. If he wants to keep hitting them out, that’s fine.”