Sixteen innings. That’s how long LSU had Josh Smith back in the lineup after the infielder missed 38 games due to a back injury.
LSU hoped his return would be the spark to another late-season run after the sophomore homered in his first game back. Now, with three weekends left in the regular season, Smith’s status once again feels up in the air.
Smith was pulled from Friday’s game at Ole Miss after three innings and LSU trainer Cory Couture ruled him out for Saturday’s series finale.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri didn’t have a tangible update on Smith’s status when he met with reporters in his office on Monday afternoon. The coach said Smith is scheduled to be examined by a back specialist some time on Monday or Tuesday.
“He’s going back to the doctor today or tomorrow to take a look at it and see what’s up,” Mainieri said. “That’s all I know.”
Smith appeared to be playing in pain throughout the series before being lifted from the game Friday. Both Mainieri and Couture thought he didn’t look right, but Smith continued to insist that he felt fine.
“I asked him several times and he said he felt great,” Mainieri said. “I don’t know that he was being 100 percent honest with me because I think he was trying to will it away.”
There wasn’t an incident on Thursday night, but Mainieri felt it prudent to pull Smith from the game after Ole Miss scored 11 runs in the bottom of the sixth inning, which took nearly an hour to complete.
Smith was back in the lineup on Friday, but he showed more signs of distress. Both Mainieri and Couture were troubled by the way he bent over and stretched before his at-bats.
“I went to Josh after the third inning and asked ‘How are you doing?’” Mainieri said. “He just stared off into space and wouldn’t answer the question. So that told me all I needed to know and I took him out of the game. I have no idea where we go from here.”
He continued: “He was very depressed. He didn’t want to talk to me. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. I knew by him not answering the question that it was bothering him because the kid would never ask out. That was his way of telling me that he wasn’t feeling right.”
Perhaps final exams are coming at the perfect time for LSU.
Southeastern Conference rules stipulate that a team can’t play any midweek games during finals week. That allows LSU a few days to regroup after going 2-6 during a brutal stretch in which it played seven of the eight games on the road.
“I think it’s coming at the right time,” Mainieri said. “Two weeks on the road, it taxes you. It’s tough. I proposed a long time ago that no team should have to play on the road two weekends in a row in the SEC. It’s almost inhumane.”
LSU didn’t practice Monday, meaning the Tigers had two full days off after returning from Oxford. Mainieri said the plan is to practice Tuesday and have something of a simulated game to help get a handful of struggling relievers back on track.
The LSU bullpen has had a rash of meltdown innings of late. It surrendered late leads in three of the past six losses and surrendered 11 runs to turn a tie game into a blowout in a fourth.
It wasn’t a total disaster this weekend, that nightmarish sixth inning aside. Nick Bush earned a two-inning save in LSU’s win on Friday night and Caleb Gilbert through four innings of one-hit ball before yielding the game-winning home run on Saturday.
Tuesday is more about trying to help some middle relievers rediscover their form.
“Most of them are going to throw tomorrow to help them restore their confidence a little bit,” Mainieri said, “but in a non-pressure situation where they can just focus on making pitches. It’ll also help our hitters that they don’t go the whole week without seeing live pitching.”
LSU is also guardedly optimistic that some help could be on the way for the beleaguered relief corps.
Freshman right-hander Nick Storz threw a bullpen session at Ole Miss and is scheduled for another one on Tuesday. If all goes well, the plan is for him to pitch in a simulated game this weekend with an eye toward returning next week.
“We’re still hopeful that Storz is coming back,” Mainieri said. “He’s progressing … Even if you can add an arm that can give you an inning here and there, it gives you another option. We’re going to keep a positive mindset and hope for the best.”
Midweek starter AJ Labas could also be an option out of the bullpen against Arkansas since LSU doesn’t have a midweek game.
“I’m not 100 percent sure what we’re going to do next, but he certainly becomes an option,” Mainieri said.
Nobody is going to confuse Mainieri for Billy Martin or Bobby Cox anytime soon when it comes to arguing with an umpire.
How rare is it to see Mainieri get run? Saturday’s ejection for arguing balls and strikes in the ninth inning was the first time the LSU coach had been ejected since 2013.
“There was a lot when I was young,” he said. “I probably averaged 10 a year through my first six of seven years coaching. I was pretty wild in my young years, but I’ve found the best thing to do is just ignore the umpiring and focus on coaching the team. I’ve tried to calm down through the years and display a little more dignity and class.”
Mainieri’s patience ran out late in a heated game when both sides were perturbed by the inconsistent strike zone of home plate umpire Morris Hodges.
LSU reliever Devin Fontenot walked the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning on a 3-2 pitch down the middle that appeared to be above the knees. In the top of the ninth, Hodges rang Nick Coomes up with the tying run on third base on a fastball that appeared low and outside.
“I’m not proud of being ejected from the game,” Mainieri said. “It’s not something that I do and I’m proud of. I don’t like to show that side of myself to the public, but at that moment I just felt like it was all I could take … I thought the ball was clearly low.”
One bit of clarification here: Mainieri isn’t subject to an automatic one-game suspension for an ejection like a player would be. Head coaches get suspended for a game following two ejections.
“I’ve already received my official letter of reprimand,” he added. “I’ll take it like a man and try to not get ejected the rest of the year so I don’t get suspended.”