By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
LSU’s secret weapon isn’t so secret anymore.
For the second time this NCAA Tournament, Caleb Gilbert entered a disaster in progress and stabilized things long enough for LSU to roar ahead to victory.
His 5.2 brilliant innings of shutout relief Sunday night allowed the Tigers to take care of Mississippi State, 14-4, and punch its ticket to Omaha.
“I think Caleb Gilbert was the story of the game, really,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He put the team on his back and steadied the ship.”
Gilbert did the same in LSU’s regional opener against Texas Southern, but this was different. He stymied a dynamic offense, led by one of the nation’s most dangerous hitters, to two hits and a walk while striking out six.
Gilbert retired 17 of the final 18 batters he faced Sunday night and at one point, handed a lead to protect, he mowed down 15 Bulldogs in a row as LSU removed any doubt from the result.
Both outings were in relief of lefty Jared Poche’. The senior was victimized by uncharacteristically bad defense in the regional and by his own loss of command on Sunday night, but on both occasions the quiet, the flame-throwing reliever came out of the bullpen with a needed pick-me-up.
“Definitely not the way I drew it up in my head,” Poche’ conceded in his typical deadpan fashion. “But I’m just glad that we won. The team had my back tonight. They had my back all season.”
This sort of thing has become commonplace for the sophomore of late.
Gilbert has made seven appearances during LSU’s 16-game winning, earning four victories while pitching to a 0.54 ERA with 21 strikeouts across 16.2 innings of stellar work.
“Unreal,” second baseman Cole Freeman said of his efforts. “He’s stepped up, whether it was for one inning or four or five, he kind of saved us. We know what to expect when he comes in. He’s going to do his job every single time. I know for a fact I wouldn’t want to face him, honestly.”
For Gilbert, this postseason run has been a redemption story on a team loaded with them.
He served as LSU’s interim closer when Hunter Newman went down with a back injury earlier this season, but fell out of favor after serving up a back-breaking three-run home run in a rubber match loss to Texas A&M back in March.
Gilbert then missed time due to an illness, but when LSU has called his name down the stretch, he’s delivered clutch pitching and then some.
The postseason has a funny way of making some unlikely heroes.
As the Tigers depart for Omaha later this week, it’s in no small part due to the work of Gilbert. And if they’re going to come home with the program’s seventh national championship, the righty will almost certainly have a role to play.