LSU pitchers Cole Henry, Eric Walker and Matthew Beck looked to make the best of a golden opportunity.
The trio had a rare weekend off when LSU’s opening Southeastern Conference baseball series at Ole Miss was cancelled March 12 because of the growing coronavirus pandemic.
Still digesting the news of not playing a three-game league series, they looked for a respite at a local golf course. Seven holes into their round, Henry found troubling news while thumbing through Twitter on his cell phone.
“I saw the College World Series had been cancelled,” Henry said. “I thought it was a joke. That someone was playing a prank and posted something they didn’t know anything about.”
Not long thereafter, Henry confirmed there would be no actual finish line for the 2020 season. That triggered a range of emotions at thought of Beck, a close friend and one of two seniors on this year’s team, potentially having pitched his final game in a Tigers uniform.
The once-spirited golf excursion turned solemn. The round didn’t make it to the eighth hole when all three players decided to call it a day.
“I was really shocked, I wondered what was going to happen to the rest of the season,” Henry said in a recent interview. “If the season got cancelled, then what would happen to the seniors? I’m two feet away from Matthew Beck who may have just played the last game of baseball for the rest of his life. I didn’t know what to say or do.”
LSU coach Paul Mainieri had initially given the team off four to five days, fully expecting begin practice for a scheduled home game March 18 against St. Thomas (Fla.) followed by a three-game SEC series with Mississippi State.
Henry was more than halfway into a 7½-hour trip home to Florence, Ala. when he received a group text from Mainieri with instructions on how to join in on a conference call.
Not only was he moving at a pretty good clip to return home in time to watch his younger brother’s high school baseball game, but Henry wasn’t very savvy in the area of conference calls.
“I didn’t even know what that was, I hadn’t been on one before,” he said with a laugh. “I’m driving the Natchez Trace wondering how I would get a conference call going.”
Henry became resourceful, gained access to the call and found out that with LSU’s season officially over, players had until 2:30 p.m. that afternoon to have their personal belongings out of the facility.
Given that development Henry, who was closer to the Alabama state line than Alex Box Stadium, called in a quick favor to roommate and LSU assistant coach Hunter Kiel to help clean out his locker.
“When we first met (after the cancellation of the Ole Miss series), we thought we would be cancelled for a couple of weeks, pick it back up some time in three or four weeks,” Henry said. “We were kind of shocked. We thought at least we were going to finish the season.”
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Henry was at the fore of LSU’s unquestioned strength going into the start of SEC play. Henry, along with Landon Marceaux and AJ Labas, had combined to give the Tigers one of the league’s most lethal weekend rotations.
Henry, who battled arm soreness near the end of the 2019 regular season, had embraced his role as the team’s ace, charged with setting the tone in conference openers against the opposition’s No. 1 option on the mound.
“Ever since I committed to LSU, I dreamed of being the guy that everyone could turn to in times of need,” Henry said. “When you needed someone to go out and give you seven or eight innings of one or two-run baseball, that was my goal.
“I got a little taste of it last year before I got injured. Coming into this year I knew I had to stay healthy and be that guy for our team if we wanted to go where we wanted to go and reach our goal of going to Omaha and ultimately winning a national championship. That was kind of the mindset going in. I was 100% ready and 100% healthy to take the load of the season and it just kind of got pulled out for under us.”
Henry, the nation’s No. 79 rated high school player by Perfect Game, went 4-2 with a 3.39 ERA, 72 strikeouts and 18 walks in 58.1 innings in a freshman season at LSU that was naturally filled with its share of ebbs and flows.Henry started in 11 of 14 games and appeared to hit his stride at this time a year ago with four straight solid outings once LSU reached SEC play. His hot streak was highlighted by a 12-strikeout effort that included one run on four hits in a 13-1 victory over Florida.
He also held Georgia in a 2-0 loss to a pair of runs over 7.1 innings with six strikeouts and four walks. He followed that limiting Mississippi State in a 10-5 victory to four hits in five innings with nine strikeouts and an eight-inning outing against in a 9-3 win over Texas A&M allowing two runs on six hits and struck out nine.
A month later, because of a sore arm, Henry was forced from the rotation and missed four straight weekend starts.
Henry returned to get one postseason start, leading LSU to an 8-4 win over Southern Mississippi in the first game of the NCAA regional. He threw five shutout innings, allowed two hits, walked three and struck out six.
He was named to Perfect Game’s All-SEC freshman team.
Just more than a month ago, there was an undeniable highwater mark to Henry’s sophomore season when LSU met Texas on Feb. 28 at Minute Maid Park in the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic.
He yielded three runs on four hits over six innings, striking out 10 and walking two in the Tigers’ 4-3 victory over the previously unbeaten Longhorns.
“I was feeling pretty high after the win over Texas,” he said. “I was kind of getting in a groove a little bit.”
Henry’s season ended when he left a 1-1 game with UMass Lowell (LSU went on to win 11-1), having thrown 60 pitches in four innings. He felt dehydrated and his body “tight” after the 92-pitch outing against Texas.
Mainieri granted Henry an additional day of rest leading up to the Ole Miss series, thus pushing his start back a day until Saturday.
“As a pitcher you’re always working on something, I was still feeling a little bit for my curveball,” he said. “The day before we got cancelled, I had literally thrown my best bullpen of the year on that Wednesday. Everything felt great and working. Felt confident going in.”
A day later the series with Ole Miss was cancelled following by the remainder of LSU’s season after 17 games in a 12-5 start for the Tigers.
“It’s understandable, you have to do those type of things in those types of situations,” Henry said. “You can’t put the blame on anyone. You have to do what’s right for people.”
LSU closed its campus, sending students home. Henry is remaining in Alabama for the start of online classes that began Monday.
His future in purple and gold remains uncertain because as 21-year-old to be in July, he’s a draft eligible sophomore and was certain to improve on the 38th round where he was taken by the Detroit Tigers out of high school.
Henry was in the midst of compiling the kind of season that would have undoubtedly boosted his stock, but instead major league scouts have to determine whether his abbreviated resume’ – 2-1 record, 23 strikeouts, six walks, 1.89 ERA, 19 innings – is enough to make him a high-round draft pick.
“I didn’t get to get a taste of what it’s like to be in the SEC and pitching every Friday against other SEC team’s first-round draft picks,” he said. “It’s what’s been served to us. Now it’s sitting back and assessing the four outings and how I did. I also pitched in the fall and all of the teams that wanted to get looks, got looks on me and then my first four starts.”
Major league baseball, whose season remains on pause, decided along with the MLB Players’ Association to hold its annual first-year player draft which could take place as late as July 20. The draft has also been reduced to no more than 10 rounds and possibly as few as five.
Reportedly, signing bonuses would be $100,000 with undrafted players getting bonuses capped at $20,000.
Moreover, major league baseball will conduct showcases for college players over the next two summers.
“It’s a matter of sitting back and seeing how things go,” Henry said. “It’s kind of blurry and interesting to see, but I have no problem going back to LSU. I love LSU more than anything and pitching for the Tigers. It will be an easy decision one way or the other.
“Whatever happens, happens. We’re not really worried about it. It’s kind of up in the air and I don’t think anyone knows. You’ve got to sit back and look at your options, listen to what people are telling you and go from there.”