Left-hander scheduled to throw two innings Tuesday
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
A seemingly endless string of soreness, surgery and setbacks have kept Jake Latz’s highly-anticipated collegiate debut on an indefinite hiatus since he turned down a reported $900,000 signing bonus out of high school to enroll at LSU.
Now, thanks in part to a rain in the forecast throughout the week, it’ll be moved up to one day earlier than Paul Mainieri had originally planned.
The highly-touted lefty will make his collegiate debut Tuesday against McNeese State at Alex Box Stadium. Mainieri said the plan is for Latz to only go two innings against the Cowboys, and after a year and a half in limbo, the outing feels a long time for the young hurler.
“I’m just ready to go,” Latz said. “Excited. Blood is pumping. I’m just really happy to get back out there and just ready to go … Physically I feel good. I just have to get my mind right to go tomorrow and just be ready.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” Mainieri said. “Poor kid has had a lot of setbacks and obviously it’s been somebody that we’ve been anticipating being a big part of our pitching staff from the day that we recruited him and the day he turned down the overtures for professional baseball.”
One of three remaining members of the ‘Fab Five’ — Alex Lange and Doug Norman being the other two — Latz arrived on LSU’s campus hailed as being neck-and-neck with the departed Mac Marshall for the title of highest ceiling among the bunch. He was the third-highest drafted high schooler in his class not to sign professionally, along with Marshall and Brady Aiken.
Instead, he took a medical redshirt as a stress reaction in his left elbow kept him out for the entire season. He returned to the mound long enough for promising bullpen sessions during summer ball and fall camp before getting shut down again.
An array of rehab attempts and doctors’ visits later he underwent surgery on that problematic elbow — ask and he’ll show you the scar from where doctors surgically inserted a screw — the slow road to retaking the mound began anew.
“It’s obviously the toughest thing I’ve ever had to experience in my entire life,” Latz said of the process. “Just constantly trying to go out there and come back. Even last year, going out and feeling good for a couple days and then not. It really puts a toll on you mentally and you start to have doubts.”
Fans, coaches and members of the media alike have closely monitored Latz’s road to recovery, and his debut figures to create a greater sense of anticipation than usual around Tuesday’s in-state midweek contest.
Mainieri, though excited by the prospects of Latz’s return, did his best not to ramp up expectations for Latz nor Riley Smith, another hard-thrower set to retake the mound against the Cowboys Tuesday after missing time with an arm injury (shoulder soreness).
“We could certainly use the arms, there’s no question about that,” Mainieri said. “Let’s just see. I’m not going to start doing cartwheels until I see them out there pitching in a game and pitching successfully. They obviously have two of the better arms on our team.”
Latz’s said his parents, who now reside in Texas, will be making the drive in take in Tuesday’s proceedings. The juices will be pumping as he takes the mound in front of a crowd for the first time, but once he’s out on that mound, keeping emotions somewhat in check will be key.
“It’s a big buildup of what I’ve been looking forward to for two years now,” Latz said. “But then, once the first pitch is out there and once I get used to the crowd, then it’ll just be baseball and pitching again.”
Latz got his first taste of live action in a simulated game before practice last Wednesday under the watchful eyes of Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn.
The hitters he faced reported a live fastball with arm-side run, a changeup he could throw where he wanted and a curveball the lefty didn’t quite have a feel for yet. His fastball reportedly topped out at 90 mph.
Freshman Brody Wofford, who played the role of hitter in last week’s sim game, said the lefty’s command surprised him a bit given the long layoff.
“He looked good, threw the ball good,” the left-handed swinging Wofford said. “Good changeup. Good curveball. It’s tough. He spots you up a lot on outside pitches.”
Dunn commented Latz’s control struck him as being consistent with what he’d seen in his various bullpen sessions and short boxes.
“When you’re delivery works, you repeat,” Dunn said. “There could have been a tendency to over-be-amped and lose some feel, but he stayed within himself well and, for the most part, threw the ball to the bottom of the zone. It was encouraging.”
For Dunn, the sight of Latz taking the walk from dugout to mound last Wednesday felt like a major step forward. To see him do it again with an opposing team in the opposite dugout and thousands of fans in the stands represents an even larger one.
“It’s been a long time coming for Jake to get to this point,” Dunn said. “Here’s a kid where he sees that light at the end has been real small, and now that thing is glowing and he has a chance to go out tomorrow and pitch.
“He’s going to be geeked up. If he wasn’t, I would be checking his pulse to figure out what’s going on.”
NEWS AND NOTES
– Third baseman O’Neal Lochridge (back) returned to practice Monday and, provided he feels good in the morning, declared himself ready for action. Mainieri, the man who makes such decisions, took more of a wait-and-see approach to his rookie infield’s prospects of returning to live action. “We’ll see how he looks today and judge him on that. He hasn’t done anything for a long time.” Lochridge said he hit in the cage by himself during the past weekend but hadn’t faced live pitching.