By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
LSU’s 3-2 victory against Nicholls State Tuesday night, the Tigers’ first one-run game of the season, provided a first glimpse into how Paul Mainieri plans to piece together the bridge to veteran closer Hunter Newman.
Hunter Kiel got the final out of the fifth inning — via a caught stealing — and struck out the side in the sixth. Todd Peterson worked around an error to post a scoreless seventh and earn the victory in relief. Caleb Gilbert worked a perfect eighth to set up Newman’s first save of 2017.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri affirmed Wednesday that pretty much is the bullpen pecking order as he sees it heading into this weekend’s Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston and beyond.
“I kind of liked the way that looked last night,” Mainieri smiled. “As far as what order they go in, I liked the way that looked last night, but you don’t know if you’re going to have everybody available every day, so you hate to say it’s etched in stone this way. And it also depends on how deep does your starting pitcher go.”
Availability and game situations will dictate how the trio is deployed on a given day, but Tuesday’s usage outlines the relative amount of confidence the coach possesses in each at the moment.
Kiel possessed overpowering stuff, as evidenced Tuesday, but he’s yet to demonstrate consistency. He couldn’t find the plate during the bullpen meltdown at UNO that stands as the lone blemish on LSU’s 7-1 record.
“Obviously Hunter Kiel is the most unknown because the consistency is not quite there,” Mainieri said, “but last night it was awesome. When he’s in that strike zone, he can be as dominating as anybody … But I’d rather use him earlier than later.”
Then comes Peterson, a true freshman who has quickly climbed the ladder by pounding the strike zone and working quickly. He’s logged 5.2 scoreless innings across four relief outings.
Mainieri noted that while the rookie hasn’t yet developed a knockout put-away pitch, his ability to consistently throw strikes and induce ground balls will make him a reliable cog in the bullpen.
Then comes Gilbert, who has started, closed and now set up during his season-plus at LSU. His showing Tuesday came on the heels of a dominant outing in which he struck out all six batters faced.
Gilbert touched 96 mph against Nicholls. Kiel’s fastball sat at 94-95 mph. Peterson works quickly with a fastball in the low 90s. They give Mainieri a trio of power arms to throw in front of Newman, the “wily veteran” who “has been there and done that.”
Mainieri, unprompted, ruled out the possibility of Gilbert, who he said “has a chance to dominate,” nor anybody else usurping closing duties from Newman. The senior looked sharp Tuesday after watching film with Alan Dunn and implementing a few mechanical tweaks.
The coach expressed confidence in all four relievers who worked Tuesday, as well as Austin Bain, who warmed up but didn’t pitch. Mainieri said LSU will need more than that going forward, particularly as it navigates through two midweek games next week.
LEFT FIELD REMAINS IN FLUX
While the bullpen trends toward clarity, the ongoing battles in left field remains a work in progress.
Through nine games it’s been a strict platoon. Beau Jordan, who swings right handed, has started all five games in which LSU has faced a left-handed starter. Brennan Breaux, who swings lefty, has started all four games in which the other team started a right hander.
“I think it’s going to be an ongoing thing,” Mainieri said. “I think both Beau Jordan and Brennan Breaux have done some really good things.”
Thus far both have produced.
Breaux has been the steadier performer, hitting .333 (5-for-15) with a home run, but Mainieri credited Jordan’s hustle double Tuesday, part of a 3-for-3 night, as the play that sparked LSU’s comeback. Jordan is hitting .313 (5-for-16) this season.
“And that’s what Beau is capable of doing,” he said. “Just when everybody is ready to write Beau off, he’s going to step up and do something to make himself stand out. But Brennan has done a really nice job as well.”
Mainieri has toyed with integrating a third player into the left field mix in freshman Zach Watson, who hits right handed and played center field Tuesday. Watson went 0-for-2 with a strikeout and a flyout to deep center field before being lifted for a pinch hitter.
At this point, it seems like field remains a two-horse race, and Mainieri didn’t rule out sticking with the present platoon.
“Beau and Brennan are probably a notch above Watson,” the coach said. “I don’t know if it’ll be a strict platoon situation … I’m going to follow my gut. If we face a string of 15 straight right-handers, does that mean Beau Jordan isn’t going to play at all? I don’t know if that will be the case.”
HESS’ VELOCITY DROP ‘A CONCERN’
Mainieri expressed mild concern at the drop in Zack Hess’ velocity as his start Tuesday reached its later stages. The freshman left after 4.2 innings and 80 pitches having allowed two earned runs.
“It was a concern of mine, I’m not going to lie to you about that,” Mainieri said, “but it wasn’t such a big dip that we went from throwing 96 to 84. You’re talking about from 92 to 88. That’s not a huge dip in velocity.
“My bigger concern is when he got tired, he hung the breaking ball a couple times. Remember, he’s just a freshman, so it’s all part of the development process as well, and it’s still early in the year.”
Hess will again start in the midweek next week. LSU hosts San Diego on Tuesday and travels to McNeese State on Wednesday. Fellow freshman Eric Walker remains LSU’s Sunday starter for the time being, and he’ll pitch against Texas Tech at Minute Maid Park.
The plain remains for Mainieri and Dunn to make a decision after three weeks on whether Walker or Hess will be LSU’s third starter heading into Southeastern Conference play.
There also hasn’t been a decision made on whether the other will develop as a midweek starter or move to the bullpen.
– LSU will be the home team Friday against TCU and Saturday against Baylor. The Tigers will be the visitors on Sunday morning against Texas Tech.
– LSU will depart for Houston early Thursday morning via bus. Once there, LSU and Baylor will make a scheduled appearance at the Shriners Hospitals for Children along with Baylor.
– Mainieri took time to make it known that Baylor’s baseball team, like LSU’s, had pitched in with flood recovery efforts last summer. The Baylor team bused in overnight and spent a day cleaning up Denham Springs, then took and shower and bussed back to Waco, Mainieri said.