BATON ROUGE, La. — It’s not a situation the LSU baseball team wanted to find itself in again. But here it is, feeling like the same problem it faced in the 2017 postseason, just twice as painful.
In 2017, LSU had to play most of the College World Series without standout freshman starting pitcher Eric Walker, who pitched through fatigue and ended up tearing the UCL in his throwing elbow in his Omaha debut. Take the freshman arm fatigue angle and multiply it for 2018, as freshman starting pitchers Ma’Khail Hilliard and AJ Labas have been ruled out for LSU baseball’s run in the Corvallis Regional this weekend.
Unlike last season, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri is being extra cautious with his freshman arms. Mainieri told reporters in Corvallis that Hilliard and Labas threw practice sessions on Thursday but neither went well, so he decided to sit them for the weekend. Hilliard experienced arm soreness after his start May 23 in the SEC Tournament and Labas didn’t pitch in the SEC Tournament because of soreness.
So who does LSU have left? Well, sophomore left-hander Nick Bush will start for the Tigers on Friday against San Diego State. Sophomore ace Zack Hess will be on regular, six-day rest for Saturday, so he’ll likely throw then. After that? LSU has a couple of options that can look both bright and grim, depending on the perspective.
Junior right-hander Caleb Gilbert is the most experienced starting pitcher of the bunch, having started 11 games this season. But Gilbert has been one of LSU’s least productive pitchers in 2018, possessing an ERA of 5.37 and a WHIP of 1.72 in 58⅔ innings. That said, the defining moment of Gilbert’s career came in the College World Series a year ago against Oregon State, the hosts of the Corvallis Regional. Gilbert allowed 1 run on 2 hits with 7 strikeouts in 7⅓ innings in a start against the Beavers last season, earning the win in a game that sent LSU to the CWS finals against Florida.
Beyond Gilbert, LSU’s options are fascinating for several reasons. The only players on LSU’s active roster who have made a start this season are Cam Sanders, Todd Peterson, Matthew Beck and Devin Fontenot. Sanders and Peterson thrived in the SEC Tournament as LSU’s bullpen aces, a role Mainieri will likely want the pair to continue.
Which leaves LSU with Beck and Fontenot. Beck threw 4 shutout innings in a start against No. 1 Florida in the SEC Tournament, striking out 3 with 4 walks in his second start of the year. His first start came on May 15 against Northwestern State, the No. 4 seed in the Corvallis Regional, when he threw 3 shutout innings with 6 strikeouts. Fontenot leads the Tigers in appearances this season with 27, but only made one start, and his 5.86 ERA is the highest among LSU’s regular contributors.
Perhaps the secret weapon for LSU this weekend will be the pitchers who don’t start. Sanders was a revelation for the Tigers in the SEC Tournament, striking out 11 over 8⅓ shutout innings. And Peterson was an overnight sensation, earning a win and a save in 7 innings of 2-run baseball while smacking a 2-run double to help his cause. Then there’s senior Austin Bain, who has 4 saves and a 3.00 ERA in 18 innings this year in addition to 21 doubles and 42 RBI as an infielder and designated hitter.
The Corvallis Regional won’t go down the same way LSU’s postseason did a year ago. Mainstays Alex Lange, Jared Poche and Walker won’t be able to carry the rotation through win after win. It’s going to need to be more of a collective effort for LSU to succeed.
But that isn’t impossible. If LSU’s run through the SEC Tournament proved anything, it’s that the Tigers pitching staff can be surprisingly deep when it’s backed into uncomfortable situations. And if LSU wants to advance to the Super Regionals, that’s going to have to be the case.