Paul Mainieri in no rush to assign roles
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
After a torrid start, Jesse Stallings found out the hard way last season that SEC hitters can turn around any fastball if there’s not at least the threat of an off-speed pitch to keep them honest.
So, knowing what he needed to improve, the hard-throwing reliever spent his summer ball stint in Alaska and subsequent fall practices working hard to develop a secondary pitch to complement his mid-90s heater.
The result — a hard-breaking back-leg slider Paul Mainieri characterized as “devastating” — has had scouts in attendance buzzing.
But for Alan Dunn, LSU’s resident pitching guru, the continued improvement of Stallings (12 saves, 2.73 ERA in 2015) as next Friday’s opening night approaches has more to do with placing a fastball that was clocked at 97 mph earlier this week.
“The thing I was really impressed with the other day was fastball command and the life he had on his fastball,” Dunn said. “Everything you do in pitching is predicated by fastball command. You could have the greatest stuff, but if you can’t command that pitch, you can’t pitch.”
Dunn continued, eluding to a strong outing from earlier in the week: “I thought Jesse was in a lot more pitcher’s counts, and when you do that it makes him able to throw that slider with a lot more conviction, and he’s going to get better results on it. That’s the thing that excited me.”
According to Dunn, it’s the same reason why Parker Bugg, who supplanted Stallings as LSU’s primary closer down the stretch last season, has struggled so far this spring.
The junior has been hit hard at times during his appearances in preseason scrimmages, some of which came against the second-team lineup.
It hasn’t yet risen to point of concerning Mainieri long term, though, as Dunn says he’s confident he can get the lanky reliever back on track.
“His fastball command has been very erratic,” Dunn said. “We’ve just got to get him back to locating that, and once he does it’ll make everything that much better. Parker has been a strike thrower his whole career at LSU, and I anticipate him continuing to do that.”
The trio of Bugg (3 saves, 1.72 ERA), Stallings and jack-of-all-trades specialist Hunter Newman (4 saves, 0.49 ERA) will comprise the back end of the LSU bullpen in one order or another to begin the season. Only time — and results — will tell how the late-game pecking order shapes out.
With the starting pitchers working under stringent innings limits — five or six depending on pitch count — the first couple turns through the rotation, Mainieri says the plan is to “map out” how to divide up the 27 opening-weekend innings.
During his nine-year tenure at LSU, Mainieri has been flexible with how he uses his bullpen. He’s gone the designated closer route when a lights-out option is available — Matty Ott and Chris Cotton come to mind — and when it hasn’t been, he’s comfortable utilizing the hot hand and going closer by committee.
“We’ve had that (primary closer) many years and some we haven’t,” Mainieri said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to answer that question before the season. As the season evolves I think guys will pitch themselves into roles that we’re most confident in.”
A fourth name working his way into the late-inning mix is hard-throwing true freshman Caleb Gilbert, who’s received rave reviews from both Mainieri and Dunn for mound presence beyond his years.
“I love that kid,” Mainieri said. “I think he’s got great poise. He’s got a good arm. He’s got good secondary pitches and he throws strikes.”
“He’s shown really good poise for a young kid and he’s shown really good stuff,” Dunn said. “His stuff is very playable. He’s been aggressive in the strike zone and the situation, at this point, hasn’t become too big for him”
– Right-handed pitcher Riley Smith’s visit to the doctor Thursday morning found “nothing serious” relating to his sore shoulder, Paul Mainieri confirmed in a text to Tiger Rag on Thursday afternoon. “Couple of days rest,” Mainieri said.