It may have only taken one game for LSU to figure out which player best fit in the spot vacated by relief pitcher Doug Norman, who was lost for the season last Sunday when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament.
Norman figured to serve as LSU’s bridge to closer Hunter Newman. On Tuesday, with his team leading Nicholls State 3-2 to start the eighth inning, LSU coach Paul Mainieri turned to sophomore Caleb Gilbert.
“I kind of liked the way that looked (Tuesday) night,” Mainieri said.
Gilbert retired the side in order as he threw nine of his 14 pitches for strikes. That set the stage for Newman to log a scoreless ninth inning that preserved the win.
Before Tuesday’s game, Mainieri let Gilbert know that if he were to enter the game, it would likely be in an eighth-inning role.
“Coach kind of gave me a layout of I was supposed to do as far as having the eighth inning,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert has been a little bit of a do-everything pitcher for LSU. He spent parts of his freshman season as both a starter and a reliever — including a stint as the team’s closer before Newman took the reigns.
Even this year, Gilbert has sandwiched a start between three relief appearances.
But the key hasn’t been his versatility. It’s been his stuff.
“Caleb Gilbert is throwing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him throw it,” Mainieri said.
Gilbert has been lights-out in his first four appearances of the season, striking out 11 in eight innings. That includes an appearance last weekend against Maryland when he struck out all six batters he faced.
During that outing against Maryland, Gilbert’s fastball touched 96 mph on the stadium radar gun — a 2-mph bump in his velocity from a year ago.
Gilbert said he’s not sure what is behind his improved fastball.
“I guess everything is just connecting with my mechanics right now,” Gilbert said. “I don’t have an explanation for it.”
Mainieri said it’s not velocity alone that determines success for a pitcher — or for that matter, his place in the bullpen pecking order.
“But if he’s got velocity along with command and secondary pitches? Now you’ve got something special,” Mainieri said. “A guy that throws harder that has those other qualities probably has a better chance at being successful than somebody that doesn’t have that kind of velocity.”
That might explain why Gilbert was the first to get a crack in the eighth inning. He has walked one batter in eight innings — that came in his first appearance of the season — and has flashed an improved breaking ball.
Even after Gilbert’s encouraging start, the bullpen depth chart is still fluid at this early point in the season outside of Newman’s status as the closer.
Junior-college transfer Hunter Kiel had his best outing of the season Tuesday, flashing an explosive fastball while striking out the side, though Mainieri said he would likely keep Kiel in an early-game role until he becomes more consistent.
Mainieri is also high on freshman Todd Peterson, who has limited hitters to a .143 average and has allowed just one walk in his first four appearances, and junior Austin Bain, who has struck out five in three innings this season.
It doesn’t sound like it matters much to Gilbert where he pitches, though.
“I’m just trying to go out there, get outs and pass it on to the next guy,” Gilbert said. “I’m up for the challenge.”