OMAHA, Neb. — At this point, the unexpected is second nature for LSU pitcher Caleb Gilbert.
Gilbert has been one of LSU’s most reliable pitchers down the stretch. Over the Tigers’ last 19 games, Gilbert has thrown 19.1 innings across eight appearances, allowing just one earned run (0.47 ERA) with 25 strikeouts and 5 walks. Gilbert’s 2.29 ERA for the season is the best of any LSU pitcher and his .203 batting average against is second only to Zack Hess among pitchers who have thrown more than 25 innings.
But Gilbert has primarily been a relief pitcher for LSU in 2017. Sure, he’s made four starts this season, but only one of them has come over his dominant last month.
On Saturday, Gilbert will be called upon to make start No. 5.
The sophomore right-hander won’t have the luxury of pitching a handful of bullpen innings Saturday when the Tigers take on No. 1 Oregon State in the College World Series (2 p.m. CT, ESPN). Gilbert has to be the guy. He’ll start the game in place of the injured Eric Walker and the Tigers will need him to throw five or more innings to have a shot at advancing. Because, with a loss, LSU’s season will be over.
But this isn’t the first time Gilbert has been pushed from outside of his element into a starting a crucial game. There was the 2016 SEC Tournament when Gilbert threw 5.2 innings of 1-run ball versus Florida. There was the 2017 SEC Tournament when he threw five innings of 1-run ball versus Missouri. And there was last Monday against the same Oregon State Beavers, when Gilbert unexpectedly had to come in for Walker after he sustained his injury and responded with 2.2 innings without surrendering an earned run.
“Caleb’s pitched in a lot of games for us, pitched well down the stretch,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I thought he pitched well the other night against Oregon State for about three innings. And I know Caleb will pump a lot of strikes. He has good stuff.”
Still, Mainieri followed that line with “I don’t know how long he’ll be able to go.” Gilbert insists he’ll be able to pitch as long as LSU needs him to, but stamina will be a concern for a guy who is used to throwing one or two innings at a time.
That said, Gilbert was electric in LSU’s Super Regional win over Mississippi State, throwing 5.2 shutout innings in relief of Jared Poché to hold the Tigers’ win. Gilbert singled that out as the biggest game he’s pitched in, and will use it as a template for how to approach Oregon State.
His other template will be Alex Lange. Perched at pitching coach Alan Dunn’s side, Gilbert watched Lange stymie Oregon State batters for 7.1 innings Friday. And Gilbert was dutiful, paying attention to how Dunn called his pitches and what strategies Lange took to get batters out.
Most notably, Gilbert took Lange’s fastball approach to heart.
“You’ve got to pound the fastball early and really just attack hitters,” Gilbert said. “When you get ahead, make sure to make the put-aways and make them put the ball in play. They don’t really like to chase. You’ve got to get them out in the strike zone.”
Gilbert can be a strikeout pitcher. He touches the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball and usually command his breaking ball well inside the zone. But his ability to get ground-ball outs will be even more important Saturday, as Oregon State to make weak contact on a strike than it is to whiff on a ball.
Regardless of approach, LSU catcher Michael Papierski is confident in the man he’ll be catching Saturday.
“You can’t ask any more from him than what he’s been doing,” Papierski said. “He’s going to be ready to go. He’s a veteran.”
As for Gilbert? Of course he’ll be ready to go. Because, again, the unexpected is second nature to him.
“This whole season has kind of been full of surprises,” Gilbert said. “I’m kind of that guy that when we need someone to step up for someone or something like that or just a freak situation or whatever that is, I’ve kind of taken that role. I’m just happy to go out there.”