Pitching is a cerebral craft, and those who choose it have their mental mettle tested in each appearance.
For two LSU hurlers without many appearances to dwell on, Tuesday’s game against McNeese State at 6:30 p.m. in Alex Box Stadium is the manifestation of months refining their disposition, a chance to finally acknowledge their full arm health and add needed depth to a Tigers pitching staff that’s just lost a veteran arm.
Jake Latz, who was originally scheduled to start and make his collegiate debut in Wednesday’s game against Grambling, was bumped to Tuesday after LSU coach Paul Mainieri studied the weather forecast for both days.
Riley Smith, scheduled to follow Latz’s outing Wednesday, will also “likely” pitch against the Cowboys. Smith has pitched just three innings this season while enduring shoulder soreness that, while never diagnosed as a structural problem, kept him from fulfilling lofty preseason expectations.
A power arm that can reach 94 mph, Smith was a favorite to crack the Tigers opening weekend rotation but developed the shoulder irritation a week before LSU’s season-opening series against Cincinnati.
“You just have to get over that mental hump of ‘Am I really OK?’ and say ‘You know what, I’m OK, it’s time to go and get through it and start pitching again,’” Smith said. “It’s been rough. It sucks. I cannot stand not pitching. This is the first injury I’ve had and the first time I’ve ever had to miss any point of a season. It’s probably the worst thing that could happen to a baseball player.”
Speaking out of breath following a conditioning drill after his simulated game Wednesday, Latz echoed his fellow pitcher’s struggles.
“Even all last year going out there, feeling good every couple of days then not feeling good,” Latz said. “It takes a toll on you mentally, and you start to have doubts … (My mental state) is close, but it’s tough right now — especially because when you go out there, you don’t know if you’re going to feel the greatest you’ve felt, but in your mind you have to think that.”
Given the rain forecast for Wednesday, Mainieri said he attempted to schedule an unorthodox Tuesday doubleheader in which LSU would play both teams in an afternoon-evening setting, but the three teams could not come to a compromise.
So it pushes Latz — the 11th-round draft pick of the Blue Jays in 2014 who turned down a $900,000 signing bonus to don purple and gold — and his first appearance up a day. Mainieri said Latz will throw a maximum of two innings.
Latz, the 2014 Illinois Pitcher of the Year, redshirted last season with elbow problems. And in November of last year, he underwent surgery to place a screw in the elbow to correct a stress reaction.
“It’s a big buildup of what I’ve been looking for for two years now,” Latz said. “But once the first pitch is out there, and once I get used to the crowd and everything, it’ll just be baseball and pitching again.”
In his simulated game Wednesday, Latz tossed 24 of his 35 pitches for strikes while lacking only his curveball command — which is frequently the final trait to return for injured pitchers — and sat between 88 and 90 mph with his running fastball.
The step was crucial, he said, to right his mind. No longer was Latz worrying about his health but, instead, focused solely on putting the baseball where his catcher set up.
Smith, who’s thrown two bullpen sessions and a short-box session in preparation, said the outing is ordinary.
“I haven’t been here and pitched as much as I wanted to or done as much as I wanted to for my team,” Smith said. “(Tuesday), it’s getting back out here and proving to myself and the coaches and the guys that ‘I’m sorry I’ve been out so long, but it’s time to get back into the swing of things.’”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome