LSU coach Paul Mainieri holds a number of meetings with players at the end of every fall to present them with a blunt, honest question: would it be better for your career to play somewhere else?
The point is not to embarrass or shame anyone, but players only have four years of eligibility, and for some sophomore who don’t figure to play much in the spring, it can be the best thing to transfer to a junior college and get a chance to show what they can do in hopes of catching on somewhere else.
Mainieri had such a meeting with sophomore right-hander Matt Beck last fall after the Alexandria native’s velocity continued to sit in the low-to-mid 80s through the Purple and Gold World Series.
“I started to wonder whether he had the talent to pitch at LSU,” Mainieri said. “I talked to him at the end of the fall about maybe going somewhere else might be the best thing so you have an opportunity to pitch. He was very clear about how he felt.”
Clear that he felt differently, that is.
“My roots here run a little bit deeper than most,” Beck said. “I’ve been a Tiger ever since I was born. When we had that conversation, I looked him in the eye and said I’m about to be the best I’ve ever been. It was motivating, but to me I had to prove myself right. I knew I had it in me.”
So far, so good.
Beck’s fastball has picked back up into the low-90s and his curveball has its good downward bite again. That stuff coming from his lanky, 6-foot-7 frame has made life difficult on the hitters who’ve faced him so far this spring.
“Now it looks like we’ve got a veteran guy who is going to be able to contribute,” Mainieri said, a definite relief as LSU heads into the season with a bullpen full of talented-but-unproved veterans.
It’s been a bit of a return to normalcy for Beck, who says his velocity is back to where it was during his senior year at Alexandria High School.
To this day he’s not totally sure why his velocity dipped into the mid-80s last season. He learned to pitch with the subpar stuff as best he could, re-inventing himself by pounding the low quadrant of the strike zone, but his season was spotty at best.
Beck began the season with 11 consecutive scoreless innings to work his way into a setup role in LSU’s depleted bullpen, but he fell out of favor when Southeastern Conference play began.
“I really can’t tell you,” Beck said. “It was freaky. Anybody’s guess is as good as mine. It was freaky. I’ve never experienced it since I was younger and it was weird getting used to pitching with my velocity down like that.”
Beck worked hard over the winter break to re-discover his proper mechanics. It wasn’t so much about changing anything major, but once he found the proper timing, he noticed the zip on his fastball start coming back.
“It’s nice to be back,” he smiled.
Right-hander AJ Labas is throwing off flat ground and hasn’t experienced any setbacks since undergoing back surgery during winter break.
Labas is still a ways away from getting into live action, but throwing without pain is a crucial step in the right direction. Now LSU is focused on him working to re-gain his core strength and get himself back into pitching shape.
“He’s progressing nicely,” Mainieri said.
Mainieri is also encouraged by the progress of right-hander Trent Vietmeier, who has thrown without issue after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery in the fall. He’s consistently thrown 91-93 mph with a lot of strikes, the coach said.
The news isn’t so positive for freshman left John Kodros, who has yet to get on a mound this spring.
Kodros called the coaching staff a week before players were due to report back and complained of shoulder soreness. LSU shut him down and he’s only recently started playing catch again.
“He’s not close,” Mainieri said.
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