Tiger and Cajuns square off at Wally Pontiff Jr. Classic
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Cole McKay didn’t turn around to check the radar gun reading, but he knew the ball felt free and easy coming out of his hand.
The big rookie right-hander strolled back to the dugout after allowing just a single in an otherwise clean fourth inning last Wednesday against UNO. That’s when a teammate passed on the news — the 90-plus mph heater that made McKay such a highly-coveted signee last summer had finally returned.
“A lot of joy there,” McKay said of the moment. “I’m extremely blessed to be able to get in the situation that Coach has put me in.”
Coming off the most promising outing of his young career, LSU coach Paul Mainieri tapped McKay to work the first inning or two — the leader of a Jack Wholestaff-style effort — as LSU makes its annual pilgrimage to the Wally Pontiff Jr. Classic in Metairie for a super-regional rematch with UL-Lafayette.
If all goes well, the big Texan could work himself into a bigger role as Mainieri continues to try to sure up the bridge from his starters to closer Caleb Gilbert.
“We want to see if he can be a guy we can really count on during the weekends,” Mainieri said. “I think tomorrow night will be a really good trial for that. Let him get in a comfortable situation to start the game.
“If he gives us a couple of good innings, we know he’s somebody we’re going to count on this weekend.”
Coming out of Smithson Valley High with prototypical size and power stuff, McKay arrived at LSU as a highly-touted arm and presumptive candidate for the vacant No. 3 starter spot that’s since been claimed by John Valek III.
Instead, McKay struggled mightily through fall camp. His fastball velocity dipped into the mid-80s —foreign territory for a 6-foot-5 hurler — and his confidence in himself followed as his new teammates barreled up his pitches in a way he’d never experienced.
McKay tried to bring his velocity back by brute force to no avail, only deepening his struggles. He got tattooed in his final fall appearance at the Purple-Gold World Series.
“I was pretty down on myself,” he said. “Me being a guy that likes to control everything, I kind of had to give it up. I was doing all that I can to fix this and it wasn’t doing it, and to able to keep on working at it, it’s tough to keep confidence up there.”
After taking the winter to clear his head, McKay returned to Baton Rouge for spring camp ready to work. And thanks to a mechanical adjustment made by pitching guru Alan Dunn, both the heater and the positive results have now returned.
“It was mechanical in the fall — pulling out a lot,” McKay explained. “Trying to muscle the ball over the plate. Trying to throw it hard. Now I feel like it’s a lot smoother coming out staying closed.”
Hoping to infuse some ‘oomph’ into the lineup after of a weekend series with heavy-hitting Texas A&M, Mainieri said Monday that he’d be shifting Greg Deichmann to third base on Tuesday night to free up the DH spot for freshman Brody Wofford.
“I’ve wanted to give Wofford an opportunity, and he certainly has earned it,” Mainieri said. “Every day in batting practice, he’s swinging the bat good … I’ve always thought this kid had a chance to hit for us, and when we go to A&M, we’re going to have to be able to match them offensively.”
It’ll be Wofford’s second career start. He’s hitting .286 (4-for-14) this season with five RBI and three runs scored. He came off the bench Sunday with a pinch-hit, two-run single that pulled LSU within a run during the six-run rally in the eighth inning.
“I’ve put some good swings on some balls when I’ve got in the game,” Wofford said. “Guess (Mainieri) just wants to give me a shot and see how I do.”
Playing Deichmann at third base in place of Chris Reid represents a possible downgrade in defense, Mainieri acknowledged, but it’s a position the sophomore spent a good deal of time at over the summer as well as back in the fall.
“Maybe Greg will go out there and play great at third base,” Mainieri said. “But we’ve got to give ourselves a chance to match A&M’s firepower.”
Mainieri also mentioned the fact O’Neal Lochridge will miss at least another week with a back injury factored into the decision.
– Catcher Mike Papierski underwent an MRI on his sore left thumb Monday afternoon, Mainieri said. Papierski said the thumb felt “better” than it had yesterday and considered himself ready to catch. Mainieri said Jordan Romero would “probably start” against the Cajuns.
– Right-hander Riley Smith is likely heading for an MRI on his throwing shoulder. Mainieri has already ruled him out for traveling to Texas A&M this weekend. “We don’t know what the problem is, so we’re going to get an MRI for cautious reasons.”