Tigers begin five-game road trip that’ll span Notre Dame, Tennessee
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Three seasons at Akron familiarized John Valek III with what it’s like to tow the rubber in the cool, moderate climate of the Midwest.
He remembers passing South Bend, Ind., on a bus trip to Northern Illinois, but his travels as a Zip never took him to Notre Dame, where he’ll get the start for LSU Tuesday night to begin a weeklong five-game road trip against the Fighting Irish.
Valek, who hasn’t appeared in a game since taking the loss at Ole Miss on May 1, doesn’t particularly care where his next start will occur geographically, so long as it affords him the opportunity to right the ship after back-to-back subpar outings caused Paul Mainieri to shuffle Sunday starters last weekend.
“All I want to do is go out there and pitch,” Valek said. “It can be frustrating for a pitcher sometimes, especially a starter when you have a couple rough outings, because you have to wait a week, or in my case a few days longer than a week to get back out there.”
Caleb Gilbert made the start Sunday in Valek’s place, working five scoreless innings in LSU’s 7-1 victory over Arkansas that completed a weekend sweep. Valek, who was available to pitch in relief if needed Friday or Saturday, threw a bullpen Sunday instead to stay sharp.
The senior left-hander has been tagged for seven earned runs across 3.2 innings of work his last two times out, failing to get out of the third inning in consecutive starts against Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
That after he began the year 6-1 in his first nine starts with a lower ERA than rotation mates Alex Lange and Jared Poche’. He attributed recent struggles to falling behind in counts, causing him to throw more mid-80s fastballs instead of the changeup and curve that made him effective at the season’s outset.
“I’ve got to get ahead of hitters and get into my counts where I can use the off-speed pitches to my advantage,” Valek said. “I’ve been getting into too many fastball counts and probably haven’t hit my spots as well as I should in hitter’s counts, and they’re taking advantage of it.”
Mainieri, explaining his decision to go with the Gilbert Sunday, put forth another theory: the external factors that come with pitching a Sunday game in the SEC — warm weather, humidity and prevailing winds blowing out — benefit offense and simply aren’t conducive to a pitch-to-contact guy like Valek.
Needless to say, that won’t be the case on an early May evening in central Indiana.
“I think John Valek has a chance to pitch deep into the game for us tomorrow night, and pitch successfully,” Mainieri said. “It’s kind of a silver lining John struggled his last couple starts … And so, what is maybe a negative, to take him out of the weekend rotation, I think we’re going to make into a positive that he gets to pitch in the Midwest.”
With Wednesday’s starter TBA, Mainieri is counting on Valek to “burn up some innings” to help the pitching staff get through a five-game week. But he won’t be the only southpaw looking to get back rolling in the right direction in South Bend.
Mainieri reiterated the plan is for Poche’ to log an inning of relief work during Tuesday game in lieu of his normal midweek bullpen session.
Poche’, who has been charged with 14 earned runs in his last 11.1 innings of work over his past three starts, has been dealing with similar struggles as Valek in terms of his execution and fastball command.
“I’ve never done that before, so I’m looking forward to it,” Poche’ said. “I think this will be better for me to fine-tune some things and get back to where I need to be.”
Mainieri declined to unveil his weekend rotation Monday, though he remained steadfast Sunday that Poche’ would remain in it.
Hello Tim Whatley
Kramer Robertson had braces for three years as a child, so forgive him if he’s not thrilled about his new dental hardware. He’s no anti-dentite.
Robertson will have braces covering his upper row of teeth for the next month, he said Monday, the product of a three-stop medical tour that took him from a dentist, doctor and orthodontist starting at 7:30 a.m.
“My mom paid a lot of money for these teeth,” Robertson said. “I have to keep them in shape the best I can.”
Mainieri gladly held the team bus for his walking-wounded shortstop as Robertson hastily packed after completing his requisite tests and check-ups.
Robertson said eating and drinking have been a struggle since he lost Jake Fraley’s relay throw from centerfield in the lights in the third inning of Saturday’s 10-9 win.
Monday was a bit better in that regard, he said, though he was only able to get one hour of sleep on Sunday night. A doctor prescrdibed him nausea medication to help with the flight.
“The game is the easy part,” Robertson said. “You’ve got adrenaline, so it’s really not that hard at all to get going for the game, and once I get going I’m good. The hard part is just doing normal things like trying to go sleep at night, because when I lay down it starts throbbing. When it comes to baseball, that’s probably the easiest thing for me to do right now.”
Imaging scans revealed that the ball didn’t actually fracture anything, which was the original fear when the injury occurred Saturday night. The wiring and mouthpiece he’d worn since a grounder careened off his face during the final week before the season opener actually saved him a few teeth, he added.
Robertson has been fitted for a new custom mouthpiece, which will be shipped to South Bend in time for tomorrow night’s game.
“I’m confident I won’t be gun shy when the ball is hit hard at me,” Robertson said. “I’m pretty confident, especially with the mouthpiece in.”
– LSU will travel on extra pitcher, Cole McKay, to Notre Dame. Mainieri said McKay will then fly back to Baton Rouge Thursday as the team continues on the Tennessee.
– Beau Jordan acknowledged that he was pulled from Saturday’s game because he threw to third base instead of second on a single in the first inning, allowing a second runner to advance in scoring position and subsequently come home, confirming it got his attention. “I wasn’t too happy about it, but you know what, Brennan (Breaux) came in and did his job, and he’s earned his spot on this team now.”
– Speaking of Breaux, the rookie outfielder was named the SEC Co-Freshman of the Week after picking up four hits and four RBI in a span of four at-bats between Saturday and Sunday.