Caleb Gilbert understands the value of doing your homework.
As a Civil Engineering major and 4.0 student, that means cracking the books and paying attention in class. As a pitcher pressed into spot starting duty with a trip to the College World Series Finals on the line, that meant carefully charting the ace who’d stared down the same juggernaut the day before.
Gilbert devised a plan and executed it to perfection on the grandest of stages, taking a one-hit shutout into the eighth inning to eliminate an Oregon State team that had lost just four games before arriving in Omaha.
And as far as tests go, the soft-spoken Alabaman has seen harder. The kind that can’t be aced by throwing fastballs on 80 percent of his pitches and pounding the zone against an overly-patient West Coast lineup.
“None,” Gilbert responded back on that monumental day in June, asked about what kind of butterflies he was feeling the morning before starting a do-or-die game. “Compared to a Fluid (Mechanics) final, that was nothing.”
Gilbert got the ball that day because stud freshman Eric Walker had been shut down due to elbow discomfort. That fill-in assignment has gained an air of permanence since Walker subsequently underwent Tommy John surgery that’ll keep him out for the entire 2018 season.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri and Co. are now counting heavily on Gilbert to translate his postseason brilliance into a consistent campaign as a front-line starting pitcher. The junior is the odds-on favorite to get the ball on Opening Night as LSU pieces together a brand new weekend rotation.
He’s got the mid-90s fastball, solid command and even-keel demeanor to handle the job. The talent has always been there for Gilbert, but his first two seasons have been a roller coaster ride of epic highs and gut-wrenching lows.
No moment felt lower than a rubber match against Texas A&M last March. Gilbert was serving as LSU’s interim closer while Hunter Newman recovered from a back injury, and his teammates handed him a 3-0 lead to nail down. Instead a nightmare scenario played out and Gilbert served up the game-winning three-run homer in a stunning 4-3 loss.
More adversity struck as Gilbert battled an illness that kept him oscillating from unavailable to ineffective for much of the season. But eventually he got healthy and began to find his form at the absolute perfect time.
Gilbert was the secret weapon of LSU’s late-season surge. From May 6— the day LSU began a 16-game winning streak that punched a ticket to Omaha — on, Gilbert went 5-0 across nine appearances in a variety of roles. He allowed just two earned runs in 26.2 innings (0.68 ERA) and struck out 32.
“You guys might call it amazing, but to a lot of the guys in the locker room, it really wasn’t surprising,” says Zack Hess. “We’ve all known and seen what he can do. What he went out there and did, yeah, that was greatness. But we all knew he could do it for sure. I have no doubt he’s going to be an anchor this year.”
Nobody is counting on Gilbert duplicating those astounding numbers over a full season, obviously, but LSU needs him to steadying force that gives them a chance to win every Friday night and doesn’t burn out the bullpen. He doesn’t have to be Alex Lange or Aaron Nola, but he must take the ball and lead by example for a young, unproven staff.
“I’d like to say that Oregon State game made his confidence go through the roof but he was pitching well before that,” Mainieri said back in the fall. “He knows he’s good enough. He just carries himself like a man around here, like a veteran.”
The early returns have been promising. Gilbert was utterly dominant during fall practices — not a definitive verdict on his future, but positive nonetheless — while tweaking his repertoire. He set down every batter he faced without breaking a sweat during his turn in the Purple and Gold World Series.
“Caleb is a third-year player now and his stuff is as good as anybody’s,” Mainieri says. “He’s had some really high moments and he’s had some low moments as well. He’s an ultra-intelligent young man and as solid a person as you’d ever want to meet.
“I just have this sense that it’s time for him to come into his own more consistently.”
Renewed confidence isn’t the only thing different about Gilbert these days. LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn has worked hard with Gilbert to develop his changeup as a reliable third pitch to play off his heater and power slider.
“I’ve been throwing a lot more changeups,” Gilbert said in the fall. “The changeup feels amazing. Probably my best confidence pitch right now, honestly.”
Gilbert has also been tinkering with that slider. He felt it had gotten too dependent on downward movement last season — running the risk of hanging it and watching it fly a long ways — and recently went back to the grip he used back during his days at Hoover High School.
“I feel like I’m getting around the ball a little bit more and trying to make it a true slider,” Gilbert says. “Over the years it’s gotten more like a slurve curveball, and the past two years I’ve lost it during the season. So I’m just trying to keep the feel for it throughout the season. I just went back to the way I threw it in high school and played around with it. Pitching for me is all about feel and grip, so it’s whatever feels best.”
Mainieri and the staff aren’t asking Gilbert to conduct himself any differently beyond continuing to carry the air of confidence that he projected in the fall. He’s now a yeller by nature, so trying to fake it for the sake of demonstrating leadership wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone involved.
All Gilbert needs to do is quietly go about his business and continue to throw the ball the way he has since last May. If Dunn needs somebody to light a fire under his staff, well, they’ve got a borderline psychotic on hand to make that happen.
“It’s different because the last two years I’ve had a lot of guys to lean on with all the upperclassmen. Now the table is kind of turned where I’m one of the veterans,” Gilbert smiles. “I’m not a big vocal guy, but I lead a lot by example. Luckily Hess is very vocal in a good way. We kind of feed of each other and we’ve got great team chemistry.”
Now LSU just needs them to feed off each other at the top of the rotation, too.