SEC South Carolina LSU Baseball

LSU's Cole Henry throws a pitch during the first inning of the Tigers' SEC tournament opener against South Carolina on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in Hoover, Ala.

On the morning of April 20, Cole Henry woke up and felt tenderness in his right elbow. He had beaten Florida the night before, striking out a career-high 12 batters — the most for an LSU pitcher during a conference game in four years. Henry normally felt sore the day after a game. This time, the pain persisted.

Still hurting a couple days later, Henry called his father Jeff, who taught Henry how to pitch when he was 9 years old.

“How does your arm feel?” Jeff asked.

“It’s sore,” Henry said. “It’s really sore.”

The sensation began a month of recovery as LSU hurtled toward the end of the regular season without Henry, its best pitcher since he had entered the weekend rotation. Henry feared Tommy John surgery. He worried one pitch would snap a ligament in his elbow.

After an MRI showed no structural damage, Henry's father pushed him through his concerns. Laser treatment also used by LSU’s football, basketball and gymnastics teams helped too.

Henry returned for the postseason, starting LSU’s opening game of the Southeastern Conference tournament against South Carolina. Henry used one pitch — his fastball — almost the entire outing. The results showed he had not thrown in a month, but the start encouraged coach Paul Mainieri.

With Henry healthy again, LSU has three trusted starters for the NCAA regional this weekend at Alex Box Stadium.

“This is the first time I've ever played in meaningful postseason baseball besides little league,” Henry said. “Should be fun.”

Two days after Henry’s start against Florida, Mainieri sat in his office with junior Zack Hess and discussed changing LSU’s rotation. Mainieri wanted to move Hess to the bullpen and slide Henry into the role of LSU’s Friday night starter. Hess agreed with the decision.

A couple minutes after their conversation, athletic trainer Cory Couture walked into the room. He told Mainieri that Henry’s elbow felt sore.

“Remember all that stuff we just talked about?” Mainieri told Hess. “Never mind.”

Henry’s pain forced LSU to postpone one of its final major tweaks to the roster. (Hess later moved to the bullpen.) Henry soon underwent an MRI on his right arm. Team physician Dr. Mark Field looked at it twice and saw nothing wrong. Henry’s personal doctor in Birmingham, Alabama, viewed it. So did a radiologist. No one saw structural damage.

Henry still worried about the integrity of his arm. The idea of surgery and missing a year lingered in his head. He threw a little at home as LSU played Alabama and didn’t feel right.

With two weeks before the postseason, Henry began six sessions of laser treatment. LSU was in the midst of a losing streak, jockeying to host an NCAA regional. Henry’s doctor asked if LSU had the laser device.

LSU’s athletic training department owned five of them. The football and gymnastics team kept some in their facilities. The baseball team shared one with the basketball team. The baseball team had used it before, but not this season. LSU brought it to the training room inside Alex Box Stadium.

The lasers operate in different classes. The higher the class, the more energy (or heat) the laser produced. LSU used a class four laser on Henry. Positioning the beam through Henry’s arm increased blood flow, healing it as the area warmed.

“It's helped tremendously,” Henry said.

After his last session of laser treatment, Henry drove home again when LSU played at Arkansas. If Henry was going to pitch effectively during the postseason, he needed to start throwing.

Henry's father had rewatched games and noticed his son’s mechanics had slipped, he suspected because of fatigue. Henry’s arm was lagging, putting pressure on the elbow. Henry threw over the weekend, keeping his arm at the correct angles. But when Henry reached about 170 feet of distance, he complained about his elbow.

“I know it’s sore,” his father told him, “but you got to push through it.”

Henry started throwing with intent. One bullpen went without pain. So did another. Before LSU played its final game of the regular season, Henry threw a rusty but painless simulated game, positioning him to return for the postseason.

As Henry warmed up to face the Gamecocks, he felt like himself again. He allowed five runs — four earned — in less than two innings, but Mainieri thought Henry pitched better than the results indicated. He had barely used his curveball or his changeup, so South Carolina waited for one pitch.

“Contributing to this team again is indescribable for me,” Henry said after the game. “Sitting on the bench for a month watching sucked because I knew I could be out there doing my thing and helping the team. They kept it together while I was gone, and I'm glad to be back.”

Along with Eric Walker and Landon Marceaux, Henry gives LSU three viable starters for the NCAA tournament. Mainieri has not announced the rotation, but Henry will pitch at some point this weekend.

Henry thinks he can pitch deeper into the game than he did against South Carolina, though he doesn’t expect to last eight innings like he did a couple months ago.

Since his last start, Henry has worked on his secondary pitches, trying to find them after a month on the bench. He threw over 300 feet on Monday and said he “felt great,” the stability of his arm no longer frightening him.

“My expectation is he's going to have his full repertoire of pitches this weekend,” Mainieri said. “I thought he threw the ball really hard the other day. You match that with his curveball and changeup now, I think we'll see the old Cole Henry this weekend.”

Follow Wilson Alexander on Twitter, @whalexander_.