HOOVER, Ala. — This week, for the Southeastern Conference tournament, patrons drive into Hoover High School, park their vehicles and load onto school bus charters for a 1.4-mile drive to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, where Caleb Gilbert began 17 of his summers watching LSU baseball teams compete.
Two baseball fields down the road played host to teams playing in late games. They arrived at 6 p.m. to stretch and perfect their approach to the night’s pitcher. Gnats swarmed the LSU team before its game against Florida, players swatting the miniscule nusicanes away while preparing for Florida’s A.J. Puk.
“They’re so bad out there,” Gilbert explains. “But they don’t even bother me right now because I’m so used to it. It’s so great to be back.”
Gilbert has been inundated with text messages all week. Church friends welcome him home. High school teammates who shared this field with the lanky, freshman right-hander want to reminisce. All well-wishes end with the same question.
“When are you pitching?” they ask.
“Whenever my time is called,” Gilbert answers.
The call came three minutes before Gilbert sprinted down the third-base line at UAB’s Young Memorial Field to a small group of reporters Friday. He’s unsure how to adequately address anticipation for his start in LSU’s SEC tournament semifinal Saturday against Florida, just the second time the Hoover native will throw at Hoover Met.
“It’s kind of all surreal,” Gilbert says. “I talked to coach (Paul Mainieri) earlier in the week and he kind of mapped it out a little bit. And it all fell into place. It’s going to be an awesome experience. I’m really excited about it.”
Gilbert threw 4.1 innings of five-hit, four-run ball against the Gators in last Saturday’s 6-2 loss. Two of the four runs came in the first inning, when a one-out walk spelled Gilbert’s undoing.
“Didn’t go after the hitters like I want,” Gilbert said. “That’s going to be the big thing tomorrow: Getting those first-pitch strikes and leadoff hitters out. As long as I have all three pitches working and commanding the (strike) zone early, I should have some success.”
Gilbert is a pragmatic petroleum engineering major who had a 3.95 GPA in his first year. Kramer Robertson says Gilbert the smartest person on the team. The pomp and circumstance surrounding his fourth collegiate start will dwarf the other three, though Gilbert maintains an inordinate stoicism for an 19-year-old.
“He’s your no-highs, no-lows kid,” Gilbert’s father, Paul, says. “It’s not going to affect him at all. He wants the ball. This has been his dream his whole life — not just to pitch here, but pitch at LSU.”
The family attends Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles, a little more than one mile away from the Hoover Met. Fellow parishioners are clamoring for tickets. They feel a connection, Paul Gilbert says. They’ve shown up all weekend at tournament games even when he doesn’t pitch.
Adam Moseley answered a phone call while walking into the Hoover Met on Friday morning. He watched Kyle Wright loosen in the Vanderbilt bullpen, preparing only to get shellacked in a mercy-rule loss against Texas A&M where he allowed ten runs in five innings.
“Their temperaments are so similar,” Moseley says, comparing his former pupil to the Commodores hurler who finished the season with the lowest ERA in the SEC. “They just get it. They know the big spots and it’s not going to overwhelm him.”
Moseley, who coached against Wright while he pitched at Buckhorn High School, was hired as Hoover’s baseball coach in time for Gilbert’s senior season. In that one season — Gilbert’s first since undergoing Tommy John surgery — Moseley recalls radar guns and scouts at most games.
No amount of attention detracts Gilbert from his objective. In a sport where meticulous routine is embraced and superstitions are savored, Gilbert strays. Teammates often cannot tell when he is pitching. He talks among them as if it’s any other day.
“It’s a relaxed intensity,” Moseley says.
Paul texted Moseley on Friday afternoon, informing him of LSU’s pitching plans. The Hoover coaches were meeting with the school’s athletic director. The room burst into excitement.
“Not that there was going to be a problem with attendance tomorrow,” Moseley says, “but I would say the city of Hoover will be there.”
“Oh my gosh, yes,” Paul Gilbert laughs. “As parents we want our children to do well, so yes, I’m very nervous about it.”
Caleb Gilbert, for his part, found the words.
“Can’t be more excited,” he says.
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome