Paul Mainieri is in his 36th season as a head college baseball coach. His primary directive in doing the job, as he explains it, is to understand the respective strengths and limitations of all his players and then put them in positions to be as successful as possible.
That philosophy, in a nutshell, is why Caleb Gilbert is no longer part of LSU’s weekend rotation.
Mainieri hinted at changes to the starting staff earlier this week and broke the news in a way by bringing Gilbert out of the bullpen to pitch the seventh inning of LSU’s 2-0 win over Louisiana Tech on Tuesday night.
The coach clarified after that it wasn’t a starter simply throwing a live bullpen session or a confidence-building exercise after Gilbert gave up five runs and failed to make it through the first inning in his last start.
Gilbert isn’t scheduled to start a game as Tennessee comes to Baton Rouge this weekend and will be available in relief whenever LSU needs him. Freshman Ma’Khail Hilliard will presumably move up and start Saturday behind ace Zack Hess. Sunday’s starter will be left TBD.
“I love Caleb Gilbert and he’s pitched an awful lot of big games for us, and I’d never give up on the kid,” Mainieri explained. “He’s always going to have a vital role on our team. After losing the whole weekend rotation, he was a veteran. He pitched a great game against Oregon State in Omaha. I was committed to giving him a really good chance to be a starting pitcher for us, and I think eight starts is a really good chance.”
Those eight starts have been a mixed bag in terms of results.
There have been highlights, like his shutout of Sacred Heart and the seven strong innings he threw at Vanderbilt, but there’s been just as many off-nights like the disaster at Texas A&M last Friday. Gilbert only recorded two outs before departing with LSU in a 5-0 hole it would never climb out of.
The junior is 3-3 this season as a starter with a 4.89 ERA while opponents hit a robust .338 against the right-hander. His strikeout rate has also dipped considerably from where it was last season, which played a role in Mainieri’s decision to return him to the role that he previously thrived in.
“The reality is Caleb has a really hard time striking batters out,” the coach said. “For whatever reason, he gets a lot of guys in two-strike counts and they’re able to put the ball in play. Over the course of a long game, I’m just not a big pitch-to-contact guy. It’s hard to have bad luck when you just strike batters out. It’s like how you don’t have bad luck when you hit home runs. When the ball is in play, you’re always at the mercy of the baseball gods.”
He continued: “You want to know when you send a starter out there that he’s got a chance to win the game for you and go a minimum of five innings. I just think Caleb has been hit too hard to have that kind of role for him.”
Instead Gilbert will work in a role that accentuates what Mainieri and LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn believe to be his greatest strength: entering a game with a lead and making it stand up, even if called upon to pitch multiple innings.
LSU is hoping to re-capture the brilliant form that made Gilbert the secret weapon of last summer’s run to the College World Series Finals. From May 6 on, he went 5-0 in nine appearances in roles ranging from pseudo long relief to spot starting. Gilbert pitched to a sterling 0.68 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 26.2 innings.
Gilbert is one of those pitchers that are easy to judge whether or not he’s hot on a given day, Mainieri said. If he’s throwing well, LSU can ride him for three or four innings on a given night. If not, it’s easier to get him out of the game as a reliever before things get out of hand.
That transition began with a clean seventh inning that included a strikeout against Louisiana Tech. Gilbert, for his part, said he’s prepared to embrace whatever role LSU asks after Mainieri shared the plan with him over the weekend.
“It’s just second nature coming out of the pen because I’ve done it so much the past two years,” Gilbert said. “Whatever Coach wants me to do here on out, I’m all for it. Just want to help the team out any way I can. I know he likes me in that kind of hybrid role where I can do whatever he needs, especially if we have a lead.”
His velocity and overall stuff should only trend upward as Gilbert gets back in the mindset of cutting it loose whenever he jogs in from the bullpen. The hope is that’ll translate in his fastball bumping back up to the 92-94 mph range that it sat at last season as opposed to the low-90s he’s pitched at as a full-time starter.
“I can see that role being really good for him,” Mainieri said. “With us having a lead where the starter doesn’t go real deep into the game, he can come in and pitch three or four innings if he’s hot. And if he’s not, you go to somebody else.”
Now there’s the other side to the equation: putting Gilbert back in the bullpen of course creates a hole in LSU’s weekend rotation.
Just not one Mainieri is as anxious to fill as one might think.
The most straightforward solution would be elevating midweek start AJ Labas to Sunday. The freshman right-hander is coming off of six shutout innings of two-hit ball against Louisiana Tech, and both his efficiency and ability to fill up the strike zone profile well for the job. He’s 4-1 this season and has pitched to a 2.23 ERA in 32.1 innings.
However, such a move doesn’t seem imminent, at least not for this weekend. Mainieri said that hooking Labas after just 63 pitches was more about wanting to get some key relievers work than saving his arm for a potential start on Sunday.
“Certainly he is a candidate,” Mainieri said. “I don’t know if he’s ready for that or not. I don’t know if his stuff is strong enough to be a pitcher in the SEC yet. When the 88s start turning into 91-92s, then I’ll feel a lot better about it. I think AJ is still pitching himself into shape. This guy had a serious surgery on his back over Christmas.”
If LSU was going to pick a third starter right now, the top choice would actually be lefty Nick Bush. He’s a capable veteran with a three-pitch mix who can control opposing running games, but the problem is he’s established himself so well as LSU’s setup man ahead of closer Austin Bain.
“I wish we could clone him and have two Nick Bush’s,” Mainieri said. “The problem is we’d be giving up a key arm at the end of ball games, and I don’t know if we want to do that yet.”
For now LSU is content to play Sundays by ear depending on what happens in the first two games of a given series. After game two, Mainieri and Dunn will huddle up and figure out a starter for the finale depending on matchups and who is available.
The coach didn’t portray it as a return to the Johnny Wholestaff approach that LSU used on Sundays in years past, though a deep bullpen certainly allows the possibility.
Instead LSU will decide how to handle game threes on a week-by-week basis. Mainieri even mentioned the possibility that Gilbert could start this Sunday if LSU doesn’t need him in the first two games, but he’s not committing to anyone as a starter right now besides Hess and Hilliard.
Don’t discount that possibility, either. If the College World Series showed anything, it’s that Gilbert can achieve greatness when thrust into a spot start when nobody in the world is giving him a chance to win.