By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — Teammates gave Zack Hess the nickname ‘Psycho’ long before he dyed his hair jet black and got the signature Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn cut buzzed into the back of his head.
Hell, it’s why the freshman decided to go for the “Wild Thing” look in the first place when LSU had its team bonding salon night before eliminating Florida State on Wednesday.
All that’s missing now is the thick glasses and No. 99 jersey.
“I’m the team psycho, apparently, and there is no bigger psycho in baseball than Rick Vaughn,” Hess told reporters after striking out the side in the ninth to nail down the save in a 7-4 victory.
Hess has saved both of LSU’s wins thus far in the College World Series. The way he’s gone about doing so has made him the buzz of the entire tournament.
Standing at 6-foot-6 with an air of intensity on the mound, Hess has bumped a 96-98 mph heater offset by a knee-buckling breaking ball. Of the six batters he’s faced, he’s struck out four and walked the other two.
Hess was so nasty on Wednesday night that four Florida State batters managed to make contact with just one offering, a meek foul ball.
It’s left quite an impression on the guys playing defense — err, spectating in awe for the most part — behind him.
They’ve learned that Hess doesn’t need a profane pep talk like the one Roger Dorn gives Vaughn in the movie ‘Major League.’
“Borderline psychotic, but that’s what you want in a guy to go out in the ninth inning,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said of LSU’s newly-minted closer. “I don’t talk to him. I’ve tried to in the past when we go out there, but I don’t say anything to him anymore. I let him do his thing.”
“He’s crazy,” catcher Mike Papierski added. “Everyone has to be calmed down at some point. Sometimes you don’t want to go out there, but you have to. He doesn’t like when I go out there. He gets mad if I go out there, but sometimes you’ve got to.”
The coaching staff doesn’t share their psychiatric diagnosis. Alan Dunn, for one, resents the implication that Hess is wild enough to earn that nickname.
While the rest of the untrained eyes stay glued to the radar gun readings, LSU’s pitching coach keeps his focus trained on the catcher’s glove. Specifically, the fact that Hess’ pitches so routinely hit it.
“He’s the furthest thing from Wild,” Dunn said Thursday as LSU prepared for its rematch with mighty Oregon State. “For me, it’s about where he’s throwing the pitches. That’s command. Command and stuff makes you win. Just stuff with no command, you’re not going to be very successful.
“You can’t come into the situations he’s been in and not be in control, or else that game will eat you alive. That’s why it’s called pitching and not throwing. There’s a difference.”
From the haircut on down, Hess is rolling with the lunatic persona his teammates have distilled on him from the time he jogs in from the bullpen to the moment out No. 27 is recorded.
But aside from those moments on the mound, Hess is the furthest thing from a psycho.
Interview him just a few minutes after his latest psychotic break and he’s a cool-as-ice, soft-spoken guy with a light sense of humor.
“Zack’s persona is really different than what you see when he’s pitching,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He’s an unbelievably intelligent kid; as bright as anyone on our team. And he’s a really cool customer. But when he gets out on the mound and gets the signal, it’s a different animal out there.”
Here’s one they don’t exactly cover in the DSM-5 Psychiatric Manuel: Hess seems able to go from cool customer to flame-throwing mad man as cleanly as most human beings change their shirt.
“It’s just like flipping a switch,” Hess said. “When you’re on the field, be mean and be aggressive, but when you’re off it, just be who you are. For me that’s laid back and calm.”
The story of how Hess would up a budding star out of the LSU bullpen is in itself a bit nutty.
Hess, a Virginia native, was a long-time Virginia Tech commitment. That changed when his father, Karl Hess, a long-time ACC referee, was unceremoniously removed from the conference’s officiating roster in 2015.
The family decided not long after that Hess wouldn’t be taking his considerable talents to an ACC school.
Karl turned to former Tennessee coach Rod Delmonico, a baseball lifer and old friend, to ask for some guidance on where Zack could get the best pitching coach in America.
Delmonico passed on two recommendations, Florida and LSU, two of the nation’s most consistent developers of power arms. Thanks in part to Dunn’s presence, Zack chose LSU once he made a visit to campus.
“Thank goodness he did,” Mainieri laughed.
Mainieri played a vital role in that, too.
While scouts in Virginia had already pigeon holed Hess as a late-game reliever, the coach assured the family he’d be given a chance to earn a spot in the starting rotation.
That promise was kept, as Hess began the year as LSU’s midweek starter in a battle with fellow freshman Eric Walker to be the team’s third starter once Southeastern Conference play rolled around.
Walker won the third starter job fair and square, but LSU may have left Hess as the midweek starter had injuries not rocked the bullpen. Doug Norman was lost for the year to Tommy John surgery and Hunter Newman, the team’s veteran closer, went down with a back injury.
With a shorthanded relief corps surrendering leads left and right, Mainieri went to Hess about a move to the bullpen. Always a team player, the rookie responded that he’d do whatever it takes to help LSU win.
That’s the same approach the big right hander is taking here in Omaha.
Even if it means going crazy for an inning or two here and there.
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