So much for keeping the cat in the bag until Thursday.
LSU will hand the ball to veteran lefty Nick Bush against San Diego State in its opening game Friday at the Corvallis Regional, LSU coach Paul Mainieri announced before the team departed for Oregon on Wednesday afternoon.
The coach didn’t point to matchups or wanting to save Zack Hess for a potential showdown with host Oregon State as the reasoning for the decision. Rather he wants to make sure Hess gets a full week of rest to be fresh after pitching three times in a span of 10 days.
“The main reason is I want to give Zack Hess a normal rest week after he worked so hard last week,” Mainieri explained. “It wasn’t a matchup thing. It wasn’t a save somebody for Oregon State thing. I thought Bush would be more fresh and ready to go.”
Bush and Hess were always going to start the first two games of the regional, according to Mainieri, so it made sense to start the fresher arm first. The southpaw will have had plenty of time to recover after throwing two innings in relief of Hess on Saturday.
Tapping Bush to start against a quality San Diego State lineup in the opener is yet another sign that he’s earned a spot as one of LSU’s most trusted arms, not to mention the most versatile.
He’ll be making his fifth start of the season on Friday, opposed by San Diego State right-handed pitcher Jorge Fernandez. Like Bush (1-1, 3.16 ERA), Fernandez (6-3, 4.65 ERA) has mostly pitched in relief this season while making occasional starts.
“I was definitely excited to find out I was getting the ball,” Bush said. “Coach Mainieri told me yesterday that I was getting it. They’ve got a lot of lefties in their lineup, and it gives me another opportunity to start.”
UP IN THE AIR
Freshman right-hander Ma’Khail Hilliard declared himself ready to start on Sunday after playing catch on flat ground during practice Tuesday.
His coach didn’t shoot down the possibility, but he certainly didn’t exude that level of certainty projected by his young starting pitcher.
“I can’t answer that question,” Mainieri said. “I just don’t know. What did he say? I hope so.”
Hilliard threw Tuesday for the first time since his SEC Tournament start against Florida last Wednesday. Since then he’d been bothered by soreness, which he described as a pinching sensation in the back of his shoulder, prompting LSU to give him a few days off to rest.
His flat ground session had “mixed results,” according to Mainieri. The plan now is for Hilliard to throw a bullpen session in Corvallis on either Thursday or Friday, at which time a determination can be made on if and when he’d be able to take the ball.
It’s worth noting that Hilliard has pitched 76 innings so far this season, which he said is “way more” than he’d thrown in any previous year of his baseball career.
“Way more, especially compared to high school,” Hilliard said. “We didn’t usually throw this much in high school. By this time of the year, you’re done throwing.”
Listed at 150 pounds, the Central native isn’t exactly built like an innings-eating workhorse, either.
The coach added that the news was status quo for LSU’s other ailing starter, AJ Labas. Labas made the trip to Corvallis along with the team, but status to pitch in the regional remains up in the air after missing all of the SEC Tournament.
“Would that concern you if half of your four-man starting rotation was question?” Mainieri asked facetiously. “It concerns me a lot. I hope they’re healthy. I hope they’re ready to go. You can’t do anything about it if they can’t. Somebody else will have to step up. I don’t know who that would be at this point, but we’ll do the best we can.”
Mainieri might not be able to point to Corvallis on a map — “I coached baseball at the Air Force Academy, not teach geography” — but the coach has deduced that June in the Pacific Northwest isn’t like June in South Louisiana.
Highs for the weekend hover in the mid-60s with lows in the 40s overnight, so Mainieri has broken his winter weather gear out of storage for the trip northwest.
“I’ve got all the heavy stuff, I can assure you of that,” Mainieri said. “You know me, I can’t think when I’m cold; that’s for sure. If it’s going to be chilly, I’m not going to have any pride at all. Batting gloves will be out. The heavy coat will be on.”