By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
A pitcher’s duel broke out at the Hoover Met the last time Alex Lange and Alex Faedo locked horns.
Lange got the best of it, firing seven shutout innings as the Tigers and Gators squared off in the 2015 Southeastern Conference Tournament semi-finals. He left with a 1-0 lead, but Florida scored twice against the LSU bullpen to advance to the tournament finals.
Both right handers were true freshmen then. They were teammates pitching for Team USA this past summer. Now both are expected to be first-round selections in this summer’s MLB Draft — Faedo could go as high as No. 1 overall.
LSU and Florida will each turn to their respective aces named Alex to bounce back from uncharacteristically rough outings and set the tone for a three-game showdown in Gainesville where runs figure to come at a premium all weekend long.
“A lot of fun,” Lange smiled, asked about the matchup. “That’s one of my good friends from the summer. We’ve kind of been texting back and forth. We’re both excited about it … We’re pretty familiar with each other. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Florida (14-8, 0-3 SEC) returns home after opening league play with an eyebrow-raising sweep at the hands of Auburn last weekend. Faedo (3-1, 2.93 ERA) allowed six runs in just 4.1 innings while issuing an uncharacteristic six walks in a 13-4 loss last Friday night.
LSU (17-5, 3-0 SEC) comes into the series off a home sweep of Georgia, but questions persist about the Tiger ace. The Bulldogs tagged Lange (3-1, 5.04) ERA for a career-high eight runs in 4.1 innings. Two starts prior, he failed to make it out of the second inning against TCU in Houston.
Coach Paul Mainieri has categorically dismissed any perceived concerns about his junior right hander.
“I have no doubt that Alex Lange will be out there tomorrow night competing as hard as he can with all the confidence in the world, and I believe in him,” Mainieri said. “Our team believes in him. I’m expecting him to go out and pitch a great game for us.”
It’s been a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde start to the season for Lange. In the start sandwiched between the two rough outings, Lange fired eight innings of two-hit shutout ball with nine walks and no strikeouts. He allowed one earn run in 11 innings over his first two starts while striking out more than a batter per inning.
The difference between the gems and the clunkers, according to Lange and pitching coach Alan Dunn, is simply fastball command. When Lange gets ahead in the count, he’s dominated. When he hasn’t he’s had to throw balls down the middle of the plate and has gotten hit hard.
“That’s been the difference between when he’s struggled and when he’s had the Alex Lange outings we’ve come to know,” Dunn said. “He is (getting movement on his fastball). When he’s gotten hurt, the movement has kind of leaked back into the middle of the plate in hitter’s zones. And you can’t throw it hard enough for really good hitters to miss those pitches. That’s been the biggest difference.”
Dunn couldn’t put his finger on what exactly makes the difference between a pitcher having relatively great command versus poor command on a given day. His point being there’s not some glaring mechanical mistake that’s causing Lange’s rough outings.
Essentially, frustrating as it may be, the start-by-start variance is just part of the game.
“Some days you’re really locked in,” Dunn said. “Your mechanics are clicking and you’re really feeling that release point. There’s other days where it’s a little bit of a struggle and you have to find it and work through it until you get it. Then there’s other days where it’s just not happening. It’s just the game of baseball.”
All eyes will be on the aces as LSU begins its first road series of the season. LSU has yet to win a true road game this season, falling at UNO and McNeese State, and dropped two out of three at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
Meanwhile Florida, like LSU, has been a dominant team at home. The Gators are 13-2 at Alfred A. McKethan Stadium this season, and likely begin the weekend with a hint of desperation after being swept on the Plains.
“Going to Gainesville is a tough task,” Mainieri said. “I’ve been down there several times, and they’re a confident team in their ballpark. It’s really kind of unique because they don’t have enormous crowds. It’s not like it’s a real intimidating environment. They just play really confidently there. It’s a tough place.”
Mainieri told reporters before the team departed for the airport that he hadn’t yet spoken much to his players about playing on the road in the SEC, instead wanting full attention on playing Southeastern Wednesday.
The coach said he’s address his players on the subject Thursday night once they practice on the field in Gainesville. LSU has won 18 of its last 23 road series under Mainieri’s leadership.
“It’s something we’ve taken a great deal of pride in during my time here,” he said. “Our team won’t be afraid. I know that.”
LSU – Jr. RHP Alex Lange (3-1, 5.04 ERA, 25.0 IP, 9 BB, 36 SO)
UF – Jr. RHP Alex Faedo (3-1, 2.93 ERA, 30.2 IP, 13 BB, 35 SO)
LSU – Sr. LHP Jared Poche’ (5-0, 0.25 ERA, 36.0 IP, 4 BB, 23 SO)
UF – So. RHP Brady Singer (2-1, 1.74 ERA, 31.0 IP, 9 BB, 31 SO)
LSU – Fr. RHP Eric Walker (3-0, 2.67 ERA, 27.0 IP, 5 BB, 30 SO)
UF – So. RHP Jackson Kowar (3-0, 2.35 ERA, 30.2 IP, 12 BB, 27 SO)
Friday, March 24 – 6 p.m. CT
Saturday, March 25 – 2 p.m. CT
Sunday, March 26 – 12 p.m. CT
McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.
LSU – No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 4 by USA Today; No. 5 by D1 Baseball; No. 8 by Collegiate Baseball
UF – No. 11 by D1 Baseball; No. 12 by USA Today; No.13 by Baseball America; No. 17 by Collegiate Baseball
LSU Sports Radio Network; in Baton Rouge on WDGL 98.1 FM
Radio broadcast and live stats for all LSU baseball games are available at www.LSUsports.net
Friday – SEC Network
Saturday – ESPN2
Sunday – SEC Network
SEC Network +, accessible at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
LSU leads the overall series with Florida, 60-45-1, and the Tigers have won nine of the last 16 meetings between the teams. LSU and Florida played five times last season, with the Tigers winning three of those meetings. LSU won two of three games over the Gators in the regular season before the teams split a pair of games in the SEC Tournament. The Gators defeated the Tigers, 1-0, in the 2016 SEC Tournament semifinal. Florida swept a three-game series over LSU in March, 2014, in the Tigers’ last trip to Gainesville.