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PREMIUM: Breaking down the Florida-LSU series
PREMIUM: Inside scoop on LSU
LSU coach Paul Mainieri made a splash in 2009 when he guided the Tigers to their sixth national title, but that wasn’t the best coaching job he’s ever done. That honor belongs to this season, where the Tigers, even after entering the season with several question marks, are off to an amazing 16-1 start.
After reaching an NCAA Regional last season, the Tigers lost several key cogs both at the plate and on the mound, and the pitching staff was hit the hardest. Anthony Ranaudo and Austin Ross signed last summer, while Chris Matullis transferred and Joey Bourgeois suffered an arm injury that has him sidelined this season.
With the uncertainty surrounding the pitching staff entering the spring, no one, not even Mainieri, really knew what to expect from the Tigers. They were picked to finish near the lower half of the Perfect Game Top 25 rankings. And to some, that even appeared generous.
Seventeen games into the season, that prediction now seems borderline foolish. And it all boils down to the one area that was expected to be a gaping hole – the pitching staff.
“Even in 2008, when we had the No. 1 recruiting class, it took us a while to come together as a team,” Mainieri said. “This year, I was thinking we would probably get off to a very up and down start, and we as coaches would just have to keep pumping these kids up. Frankly, it’s come together quicker than I thought it would.”
While the LSU offense has done a solid job this season, hitting .325 with freshman JaCoby Jones leading the way, the pitching staff has been the biggest surprise with a solid 3.18 ERA with opponents hitting .201.
The Tigers have a couple of experienced arms on the staff, but the biggest development is the fact they struck gold with their newcomers on the mound. The list includes Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades, Kurt McCune, Tyler Jones and Kevin Berry.
Mainieri and the Tigers were crushed when first-rounder Zach Lee signed with the Dodgers last summer. He was expected to immediately enter the weekend rotation, and was a guy the Tigers tabbed as a stud from Day 1. But these days, Lee has become quite the afterthought with sixth-round pick Kevin Gausman leading the way.
Gausman is a guy the Tigers were sweating until the MLB draft deadline last summer. But while last-minute negotiating was going on, Gausman was on the road moving down to Baton Rouge, La., to start college. He was serious about becoming a front-line ace for the Tigers.
That seriousness has become apparent in his first four starts, as the hard-throwing right-hander, who has topped out at 98 mph, has a 3.28 ERA in 24 2/3 innings with opponents hitting just .195 against him. Gausman throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball, curveball and changeup.
“Kevin is older than a typical freshman, and will be draft-eligible as a sophomore next season. It shows in his demeanor,” Mainieri said. “He was able to go out to the California Collegiate League last summer and face college hitters. That was great preparation, and that’s allowed him to come in here and really take a step forward.”
The Tigers also have enjoyed the services of right-handed pitcher Ryan Eades. Eades began the season as a starter and was consistently throwing in the mid 90s. The Tigers have since moved him to the bullpen after suffering some arm soreness following his start against Wake Forest.
As excited as LSU is about Eades’ future, they’re taking it easy with him after he had labrum surgery just over a year ago. A return to the weekend rotation is not out of the question, though. Eades has a nasty arsenal that includes a fastball and curveball.
“We’re slowing down with Eades because we want to build his endurance up,” Mainieri said. “But we very much expect him to be a starter either later this season or next year. Either way, he’s going to be an outstanding pitcher for us.”
Gausman and Eades are power pitchers that wow observers, but the biggest surprise award belongs to freshman right-handed pitcher Kurt McCune.
McCune wasn’t a highly sought prospect last summer, but has thrown in the 88-91 mph range this spring with a solid curveball and changeup. He leads the Tigers’ starters in the statistical department with a 1.11 ERA in 24 1/3 innings. He also has limited teams to a .125 batting average.
“McCune is the surprise. We thought he was good, but we didn’t know he was this good. He really has taken this place by storm, and there’s just a little something different about this kid,” Mainieri said. “He may not have the velocity numbers that some guys have, but his self-confidence is off the charts, he doesn’t get flustered and just has the ability to make big pitches in big situations.”
Mainieri also pointed to his good release point, nice downhill plane on pitches and his ability to be deceptive as other reasons for instant success.
With Gausman and McCune leading the weekend rotation, and veteran Ben Alsup serving as the anchor on Sundays, the Tigers have had the luxury of giving their bullpen a breather until the latter innings in contests.
Surprisingly, the LSU bullpen is doing a great job this season. Veteran right-hander Matty Ott dealt with some severe inconsistency issues last season, but is back to his freshman form after a summer at the Cape Cod League.
“Matty has been a big part of our start. He went out last summer and reestablished some of his mechanics and confidence,” Mainieri said. “He’s seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. That has made him an extremely tough person and it’s showing so far this season.”
New Orleans transfer Kevin Berry, who had a high ERA with the Privateers last season, is a pleasant surprise. Berry, who serves as a situational reliever, has yet to allow a run in nine appearances. Youngsters Samuel Peterson and Jimmy Dykstra also have done solid jobs with ERAs of 0.00 and 3.75, respectively.
“The key right now is that our starters are giving us seven innings, and that’s helping to bridge the gap to bring in guys like Berry and Ott,” he said. “Berry has done a great job, Dykstra is a 90-plus mph guy and Peterson is a guy we use a lot like Berry.”
With a new-look and impressive pitching staff, the Tigers swept Cal State Fullerton at home last weekend in their first big test. Now comes another stiff test with national title favorite Florida coming to Alex Box Stadium this weekend.
The Tigers once again expect big-time performances from their young pitchers.
It has been so far, so good for the Tigers and their young arms. Mainieri, who deserves much credit for his team’s start, hopes the trend continues against the Gators.
Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at email@example.com