By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
HOMEWOOD, Ala. — Enjoying the fruits of their labor, a hard-earned bye into the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, LSU coach Paul Mainieri gathered his players around him before the Tigers worked out at nearby Samford University Friday.
Mainieri listed off some of the team’s accomplishments this season — an SEC West title, a share of the overall SEC Crown, the most wins in the nation against teams in the top 50 RPI — before moving on to the even more lofty aspirations for the rest of this weekend and the ones that follow.
Among the championships LSU hopes to win, Mainieri added in one individual accomplishment: the coach challenged his team to get Jared Poche’ the three victories he needs to become the winningest pitcher in the program’s storied history.
“We all want him to get it because it’s a team record,” Mainieri said. “I just met with the team and I told them that’s a big goal for tomorrow. If he gets that record, it means the team is doing well.”
Poche’ will get the ball Saturday with a chance to pitch LSU into the SEC Tournament Championship Game. A victory would move the lefty within one of Scott Schultz’s all-time record of 38. If he gets a chance to break that mark, it means LSU is playing in a super regional with a chance to go to Omaha.
To borrow Mainieri’s go-to line in describing LSU’s resident bulldog, it’s ‘vintage Poche’ that the southpaw doesn’t much like talking about his own historic chase.
His coach and teammates are more than happy to do the talking for him.
“I want him to get it,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “We’re very aware of it as a team. He might not want to talk about it, but we’re definitely trying to get that for him. We’ll do anything for him.”
“He’s either been our No. 1 or 2 starter his entire team here,” Mainieri added. “He’s had a lot to do with the success we’ve had here the four years he’s been here.”
It’s been an up-and-down senior season for the southpaw. He began it with a no-hitter and an uncharacteristically dominant 32 consecutive shutout innings.
Then came a rough patch before he’s gotten back to his ‘vintage’ self in recent weeks, constantly working himself into and out of trouble as LSU won his last four starts over its torrid 11-1 final stretch of SEC play. Overall he’s 9-3 with a 3.40 ERA.
That’s what makes Poche’ such an endearing figure, Mainieri says. Unlike ace Alex Lange, who passed Ben McDonald on LSU’s all-time strikeout list Thursday, Poche’ doesn’t possess a mid-90s fastball or swing-and-miss breaking ball.
His best outings and his worst, frankly, aren’t that different. He’s going to pitch to contact and rely on his defense to make plays behind him. Those who know him say he’s still the same pitcher and teammate that showed up in the fall of 2013 and instantly took on a spot in the weekend rotation.
“I’ve known him very well,” said Robertson, who was a part of the same signing class. “He hasn’t changed at all. He’s still the same guy that he was in the fall of 2013. He hasn’t changed a bit. Great dude and an even better teammate for the past four years.”
Mainieri often jokes that he’s never coached a pitcher who makes it harder to gauge when it’s time to come with the hook. If he got a reliever up every time Poche’ got into a jam, he says, there’d constantly be someone throwing in the LSU bullpen.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m watching him pitch like this,” he laughed, holding his hands over his eyes. “Eventually I’ve learned to just not even think about getting someone up until the sixth inning.”
In terms of raw stuff or professional potential, Poche’ doesn’t have the same ‘wow’ factor that Lange, Aaron Nola, Kevin Gausman or any of the other greats Mainieri has coached.
But the coach shared a private conversation with reporters Friday that he says sums up how he feels about the lefty.
“He’s one of my favorite players I’ve had in my 35 years of coaching,” Mainieri said. “A couple weeks ago I had a little private moment with him and I just said ‘Jared, it’s been a real honor to have you in the program and my life has been enriched by the opportunity to coach you.’ And I really feel that way about the kid.
“He’s just the consummate team player. He loves LSU. He’s a great teammate. When he’s not pitching, he’s right there on the top step cheering on his teammates. He’ll always be one of my favorites of all time.”
The hallmark of Poche’, Mainieri said, is that regardless of whether he’s firing a shutout or getting hit around the yard, he’s going to compete with everything he has.
That in a nutshell is why a coach on the verge of securing another national seed gathered his team Friday to challenge them to do everything in their power to make sure Poche’ departs the program as the winningest pitcher to ever wear the purple and gold.