LSU coach Paul Mainieri will always have a soft spot for Kevin Gausman.
It's easy to see why the sophomore right-handed pitcher is well liked. He's a fantastic person away from the field. But on the field, he's a fierce competitor who is putting together a sophomore campaign that could vault him all the way to the top five picks in the upcoming MLB draft.
But as notable as his sophomore season has been thus far, it's what Gausman has done along the way that has turned him into a fan favorite, and rightfully so.
It all started two summers ago when the Tigers were waiting to see what several talented members of their recruiting class would decide -- would they go the professional route, or would they choose to play for the Tigers?
It didn't look good for LSU for the longest time. The Tigers had three first-rounders in right-handed pitchers Zach Lee and Cam Bedrosian, and also had a first-round position player in Delino DeShields Jr. The Tigers also had a third-round pick, infielder Garin Cecchini, who was drafted and signed by the Boston Red Sox.
As Mainieri and the Tigers waited for each of those players to make a decision, Gausman was the one prospect they really weren't too worried about. Despite having a big-league arm that flashed 90-plus mph fastballs in high school, Gausman, for all intents and purposes, seemed focused on college. He seemed so focused his potential first or second round stock dropped to the sixth round, where he was snagged by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
While Lee, for instance, made the decision to sign with the Dodgers at the zero hour on the signing deadline, Gausman, who hails from Centennial, Colo., wasn't doing any negotiating. Instead, he was making the 20-hour drive to attend fall classes at LSU.
His commitment and desire to play and help the Tigers even two years ago has helped him become one of the newest LSU All-Americans, and a potential Baton Rouge legend.
GAUSMAN ... THE PITCHER
Despite being a freshman entering the 2011 baseball season, Kevin Gausman left little doubt where he wanted to be as the season progressed. He wanted to be in the starting rotation.
Gausman had an outstanding high school career, being named a Perfect Game All-American and entering his high school senior season as the nation's No. 17 high school player. To say the least, the talented right-hander had high expectations entering last season.
He didn't disappoint. Gausman was a consensus Freshman All-American, making 14 starts and compiling a 3.51 ERA in 89 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 86 and walked 23, while teams hit him at a .215 clip. Stuff-wise, Gausman had big-time velocity last season with a fastball in the mid 90s. However, his secondary stuff simply wasn't refined.
"Being from Colorado, I really never needed my secondary stuff, so I didn't focus on it in high school," Gausman said. "At that point it would've been dumb for me to throw changeups when I can get hitters out with just a fastball."
After his freshman season, Gausman realized the valuable lessons he learned. For instance, he learned the value of refined secondary pitches, and he learned how to get best prepared for each start.
Interestingly, his process for getting ready for starts has changed over the past year.
"I've learned to not work on making yourself perfect out there. Just work on your stuff and try to spin your breaking ball and slider. That's probably the biggest thing I learned from my freshman season," he said. "I do throw long toss, but some other things have changed. For instance, in the past, there wasn't a lot of structure to our bullpens. We'd just do them whenever. Now, new pitching coach Alan Dunn has brought a real professional approach where we have two bullpen sessions a week instead of one. That has really helped me and the other starters in terms of endurance."
Also helping Gausman's endurance this spring is the offseason workout program he undertook. Inspired by a video of talented pitcher Dylan Bundy boxing to increase his endurance, Gausman decided to take up the sport last summer and during winter break while training with Push Performance, an organization out of Denver.
"I do a lot of strength and conditioning programs for my shoulder, and one thing that really helped me out was working with Push Performance and doing a lot of boxing," he said. "It's really good cardio work and it helps you build strength and endurance. I also did plenty of research to make sure there weren't any major risks involved.
"I think I became a pretty good little boxer."
Though Mainieri and the Tigers hope they won't be soon introduced to his newfound boxing skills, they certainly will take the numbers he has put together as a sophomore.
A draft-eligible sophomore that is now earning mention as a potential top-five pick in the upcoming draft, Gausman's stuff has gone off the charts this spring.
Gausman is throwing his fastball consistently in the mid 90s. Last week against Arkansas, he hit 99 a few times, while also hitting 97 with the fastball late in the game.
"It seems like every time he goes out there, he's better than he was before," Mainieri said. "His velocity is always great and consistent, and he's always in command. Anytime you have that combination, you're going to be tough to hit.
"But really, the big key to Kevin has been the development of his secondary pitches."
Last season, Gausman threw a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. However, his repertoire has changed a bit this spring. After Dunn's arrival, the new pitching coach immediately scrapped his old slider, noting that it simply wasn't a dominant pitch. It was just a pitch.
Gausman made significant changes to his old slider, forming his new slider into one of the power variety, that consistently sits 84-86.
"The slider I had last season was just another pitch to throw. It didn't have much movement on it," he said. "It was kind of a loopy slider and it definitely wasn't a power pitch. Coach Dunn wanted me to emphasize the new and improved slider, and work on making it sharper. Now, my slider has late bite and a lot of depth. My slider is 100 times better than it was."
Gausman is throwing his curveball in the 74-77 range, but the split-changeup has set him apart this season. Inspired by Tim Lincecum, who specializes in the split-change, the talented right-hander is consistently throwing the 80-81 offering with much movement and command.
"I first started messing with the split-changeup when I first got out of high school, and now I've found a grip I really like," he said. "I've really started to throw it. The more I throw it, the more I feel comfortable with it."
Moving forward, Gausman is a guy the Tigers better enjoy watching this spring. Though Gausman or Mainieri certainly wouldn't say it, there's probably a slim chance he returns to Baton Rouge for his junior season.
It remains to be seen what he'll be at the next level. Mainieri compares Gausman's combination of velocity, athleticism and potential ceiling to that of former Notre Dame pitcher and current big-league reliever Brad Lidge, whom he coached in college.
For now, Gausman just continues his life as one of college baseball's elite pitchers, something he committed to being on a highway to Baton Rouge two summers ago.
"Gausman had 95-percent of the velocity he shows you today when he was in high school, but he was more of a thrower and hadn't developed the consistent mechanics. He would flash the quality on his breaking ball but didn't really have much feel for it," said David Rawnsley, PG's Director of Scouting. "If he'd been signable out of high school he'd probably been a late first round/early comp round pick, but going to school for two years and developing that consistency and secondary pitches has obviously been a great decision and experience for him."
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org