It won’t be Zack Hess jogging in from the bullpen if LSU finds itself in position to close out a tight win against Notre Dame on Opening Night.
That much is certain as last summer’s internet sensation is LSU’s Saturday starter heading into opening weekend, leaving quite the void at the back end of the bullpen.
So who would handle closing duties if a save situation arises for the home team on Friday night? Not even LSU coach Paul Mainieri knows for sure on the eve of the 2018 season.
“If you asked me who our closer is going to be, I can’t tell you the answer to that question,” Mainieri said. “How are we going to find out which guys we can count on unless we run them out there?”
Freshmen Ma’Khail Hilliard and Devin Fontenot remain the odds-on favorites to be LSU’s go-to relievers at some point, but Mainieri hinted that he’d prefer to give first dibs to more veteran options, at least on Opening Night. The reason is simple: it’s hard to simulate the adrenaline of 12,000 people screaming in the ninth inning of a 3-2 ballgame.
“Opening day is different than every other day, so typically I like to go with the veterans,” Mainieri said. “They’ve been around here. They know what the environment is like. They’ve pitched in Omaha. They’ve pitched in front of big crowds and so forth.”
That essentially leaves three options out of a bullpen that’s awfully short of collegiate experience: Matt Beck, Austin Bain and lefty Nick Bush. What order they’re used could depend simply on how Notre Dame’s batting order lines up and game situations.
That may be the case for Friday night, but bullpen roles remain somewhere between fluid and completely undefined as Mainieri and LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn search for arms they can rely on in relief.
Intra-squad scrimmages will determine the initial pecking order, and just about everyone with a healthy arm will get a chance, but it’s essentially a meritocracy going forward where the pitchers who have success will receive more high-leverage chances going forward.
“We’re looking to see who the guys are who’re going to be able to step up,” Dunn said. “I’m still looking for that. But right now I’m just looking for guys that’ll come in and throw the ball across the plate. That’s all we’re trying to establish right now. We need to be more consistent in the strike zone and let their stuff work for them.
“We’ve got guys that have stuff. We’ve just got to tighten up a little bit. Then we can see who the role guys are. I don’t know what the roles are yet.”
The two freshmen, Hilliard and Fontenot, are considered to have the requisite stuff to fill the closer role.
Hilliard has good movement on his fastball and a 12-6 curveball that has the makings of a lethal put-away pitch. Fontenot is a classic strike thrower with good life on his fastball. Dunn said the key for both of them is learning how to pitch in better counts.
“I like those young guys,” Dunn said. “They’re young, and we’ve got to get them on a mound and figure it out. We haven’t seen another color jersey yet. That’s what I’m anxious to see. Can we step our game up when the lights come on and how does our stuff play when that happens?”
One pitcher who won’t be an option this weekend is JUCO transfer Cam Sanders. Sanders threw five innings in a scrimmage this week and remains in line to start next Wednesday night against UNO.
OPENING NIGHT LINEUP
- Josh Smith (SS)
- Nick Webre (1B)
- Antoine Duplantis (RF)
- Zach Watson (CF)
- Daniel Cabrera (LF)
- Bryce Jordan (C)
- Beau Jordan (DH)
- Jake Slaughter (3B)
- Brandt Broussard (2B)
LSU – Jr. RHP Caleb Gilbert (7-1, 2.16 ERA, 58.1 IP, 12 BB, 67 SO in 2017)
Notre Dame – Gr. LHP Scott Tully (2-0, 3.71 ERA, 17.0 IP, 10 BB, 12 SO in 2017)
LSU – So. RHP Zack Hess (7-1, 3.12 ERA, 60.2 IP, 30 BB, 83 SO in 2017)
Notre Dame – Fr. LHP Tommy Sheehan (making collegiate debut)
LSU – So. RHP Todd Peterson (3-1, 4.19 ERA, 34.1 IP, 16 BB, 21 SO in 2017)
Notre Dame – So. RHP Cameron Junker (0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.2 IP, 0 BB 2 SO in 2017)