FISCHER: Outside the Box
Bullpen biggest pleasant surprise for LSU in 2012
By RICHARD FISCHER
Tiger Rag Assistant Editor
Lots of things have contributed to the Tigers’ 12-6 start in SEC play.
LSU’s hitting is much more clutch and timely than it was last season.
LSU’s defense has been sparkling with a .979 fielding percentage that ranks near the top of the league.
LSU’s starting pitching has been dominant at times and good enough to give the Tigers a chance to win just about all the time.
But arguably the biggest reason why LSU has risen back near the top of the SEC has been the emergence of a reliable bullpen to get big outs late in games.
And LSU’s success there can be attributed to one man — first-year pitching coach Alan Dunn.
The newest instructor on LSU’s staff has molded a group of arms in LSU’s pen that had little-to-no experience entering the season and made them into one of the dominant units in college baseball.
The last three outs of a ballgame are always the toughest to get, so we’ll have to start with the reliever who’s taken the bull by the horns in the ninth inning — junior college transfer Nick Goody.
The first year Tiger has saved six games for LSU this year, and he’s submitted a phenomenal 0.90 ERA in 20 innings of work.
It’s tough for many college hitters to catch up to Goody’s fastball, and when they lock in on the heater, his secondary pitches just aren’t fair.
But Goody can’t get the save unless the rest of the bullpen bridges the game from the starter to the closer, and several arms have stepped up in huge spots in this regard.
Junior lefty Chris Cotton has been nothing short of dynamite for the Tigers this season. Until giving up an earned run and failing to strand runners on base in Sunday’s loss at Kentucky, Cotton had been lights-out in key spots with runners on base this season. He’s 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA this season.
Cotton was quite average with a 3.38 ERA in 13.1 innings pitched last season, but he doesn’t even look like the same pitcher under Dunn’s tutelage.
Like Cotton, Nick Rumbelow entered 2012 with little experience (13 innings pitched in 2011), and he got off to a rough start in 2011 with his ERA up above nine. But he’s settled down recently and become a force in LSU’s pen. His ERA is now down to 4.00, and with Goody manning the closer role, Rumbelow is quite an arm to match with Cotton in the 7th-8th inning range.
First-year Tiger Brent Bonvillain (3.10 ERA) and Joey Bourgeois (2.45 ERA, back from Tommy John surgery) have been pleasant surprises for LSU in 2012, and with Aaron Nola bumping Kurt McCune out of the weekend rotation, McCune brings experience and grit to LSU’s pen.
Excluding McCune, that’s five guys that entered 2012 with little or no experience pitching in the SEC, and Dunn has turned them all into studs with his ‘don’t fool around with hitters’ pitching philosophy.
The numbers of strike-outs to walks that Dunn’s staff has produced are tremendous. Goody (30 K’s, 2 walks), Cotton (20 K’s, 3 walks), Rumbelow (25 K’s, 10 walks), Bonvillain (17 K’s, 7 walks) and Bourgeois 22 K’s, 4 walks) have all thrown the ball over the plate and forced the opponent to beat them.
And that hasn’t happened often. Among those five, only Bourgeois has received a loss this season, and he’s got two.
You know you’ve got a good pen when you’re 10-4 in one-run games and have lost just one game all season when leading after the seventh or eighth innings.
Last season, LSU entered every game hoping the bridge between the starting pitcher and Matty Ott/Kevin Berry would be a short one simply because Ott and Berry were the only reliable pitchers in the pen.
Now, even without Ott and with several other pitchers passing up Berry, there’s no such problem in 2012, and that bodes well for a team that’s sure to face many key late-game situations as the season progresses.
As the pressure increases later in the season, it will be interesting to see how LSU’s pen responds, but all signs are good to this point, and that’s not something many staffs in the country can claim.
Assistant Editor Richard Fischer is Tiger Rag’s lead reporter on LSU baseball. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.