By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — Caleb Gilbert understands the importance of doing your homework leading up to the big test.
As a Civil Engineering major, that means cracking the books and paying attention in class. As a pitcher pressed into starting duty in the College World Series by the injury to Eric Walker, that meant keeping the chart of the ace who toed the rubber the afternoon before him.
When it comes to exams, apparently the former is a whole lot more stressful.
“None,” Gilbert responded, asked about what kind of butterflies he was feeling the morning before starting a do-or-die game with a trip to the College World Series Finals on the line. “Compared to a Fluid (Mechanics) final, that was nothing.”
Gilbert took a one-hit shutout into the eighth inning against Oregon State Saturday as his Tigers prevailed 6-1 to move within two victories of a national championship.
The key, he insisted, was in his preparation.
Gilbert kept the pitching chart as LSU ace Alex Lange shut down the same Oregon State juggernaut the afternoon before. He studied what worked for Lange, and brilliantly put that information to use in the biggest outing of his young career.
Perhaps then it’s no wonder why both hard-throwing right handers posted mirroring stat lines: one run allowed on two hits over 7.1 splendid innings of work to earn the two victories needed to eliminate a team that’d lost just four games all year before Omaha.
“He was special,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “That has to be one of the greatest performances in LSU baseball history for the circumstances. Between the team that he was facing and us having a depleted pitching staff with Walker hurt. To do what he did today, it’s straight out of a movie.”
The numbers bear out just how much his preparation paid off.
From studying Lange’s outing, Gilbert knew Oregon State’s approach was to be patient early in the count and not swing at any breaking balls.
So, being the intelligent engineering student that he is, Gilbert didn’t throw any. Of the 97 pitches he threw, more than 80 percent were fastballs. He threw strike one to 17 of the 25 batters he faced, using those heaters to stay ahead in the count all afternoon.
Oregon State, like many West Coast schools, plays a brand of baseball more focused on aggressive base running than power hitting. He took them out of their game by retiring the leadoff man in all eight innings he pitched.
Between Friday and Saturday, Oregon State only put the leadoff man on base once in 18 innings — the ninth inning Saturday against Zack Hess. Steven Kwan and Nick Madrigal, the two table setters atop the Beaver order, went 1-for-13 in the two LSU victories.
“That was the key to both these games,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Those two kids are pests, and I say that in a very complimentary way. You’d love to have those guys on your team.”
Gilbert also demonstrated the awareness to take advantage of home plate umpire Greg Street was giving him.
Specifically, a few inches off the outside corner of the plate. Gilbert used Oregon State’s plate discipline against them and struck out five batters looking the first time through the order, all on fastballs on — or a bit off, as replay showed — the outside corner.
“I kind of got a feel for (the strike zone) early in the game,” Gilbert said. “He gave me a ball or two off, and I really wanted to attack with that heater away. They’re a really patient offense, and you want to get in pitcher’s counts and trust the defense behind you.”
Given the stakes, LSU would’ve gladly taken four-or-five solid innings from Gilbert and taken its chances piecing together the bridge to Hess from there. Instead he took a dominant gem into the eighth and built that bridge all by himself.
That kind of ingenuity will probably make him one heck of an engineer some time down the road. For now, it makes him the hero as LSU moves on to play for a championship.