By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Southeastern Conference baseball games just mean more, and LSU will begin the pivotal 30-game league grind this weekend without its veteran closer.
Hunter Newman will miss LSU’s SEC opening series against Georgia this weekend and is out indefinitely with a lower back injury, LSU coach Paul Mainieri announced Thursday. The Tigers host the Bulldogs for a three-game series set
“He’s going to be out a while,” Mainieri said. “We don’t know how long. It could be two weeks, it could be six weeks; we’re not really sure yet. We’re going to see how it is in a week and we’ll reassess the situation at that point.”
Newman, who wasn’t available for LSU’s two midweek games, will be rested for another week and before a decision will be made regarding a course of action. He’ll be left off the 27-man active roster for the Georgia series, Mainieri said.
It’s unclear how or when the senior right hander suffered the injury. The coach said Newman woke up with lower back pain Friday, but didn’t tell the coaches and pitched Sunday against Wichita State.
Newman then showed symptoms Monday, Mainieri said, and an MRI Tuesday afternoon revealed an “irregularity” in his lower back.
“There’s one course of action being tried right now, and hopefully it’ll quiet it down and he’ll be able to come back in a couple of weeks,” Mainieri said. “If that doesn’t work, there might be something more drastic that needs to be done. So we’re just kind of in a wait-and-see mode right now until (Monday).”
Sophomore right-hander Caleb Gilbert will take over as LSU’s closer in the interim. He’s thrived as LSU’s primary setup man this season, pitching to a 1.26 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 14.1 innings of work across eight appearances (one start).
“I’m taking it with a mindset like a backup quarterback,” Gilbert said. “It’s Newman’s job, and when the time comes, he’ll get it back, but I’m just trying to fill the void and get those last three outs. I know what it takes.”
Gilbert spent a portion of last season as LSU’s closer before ceding the job to Newman over the course of a freshman season in which he started, closed and filled every role in between.
The results were mixed, but Gilbert does have a collegiate save under his belt. He nailed down a 6-3 victory over Louisiana Tech on March 8, 2016, and can draw on the successes and failures of his previous closing experience as he steps in for an accomplished veteran with 14 career saves.
“Just how hard it is to get those last three outs,” Gilbert said. “Each hitter is so focused and there’s nothing like it. There’s no room for error, and the first batter is so critical. You have to get ahead and just can’t give them any freebies.”
Mainieri expressed “all the confidence in the world” in Gilbert, but the losses of Doug Norman to Tommy John surgery and now Newman leave the bullpen short staffed. The injuries leave a void behind Gilbert and Todd Peterson that’ll be filled by whoever proves capable of doing the job.
“Obviously it’s going to be next-man-up philosophy,” Mainieri said. “Somebody is going to have to bridge the gap between our starters and Caleb, and Caleb can’t pitch every day, so somebody is going to have to step up and do it.”
The coach said he hooked Zack Hess after six innings Tuesday night in hopes he’d be available to work out of the bullpen this weekend. However, he likely won’t be able to return until Sunday.
Mainieri also namedropped freshman Matt Beck and veterans Austin Bain and Russell Reynolds as relievers who could be in line to get a shot at a larger role.
Expect LSU to lean heavily on its starting rotation to get deeper into games with the bullpen shorthanded. The three-man roation of Alex Lange, Jared Poche’ and Eric Walker fired 21 shutout innings against Wichita State last weekend.