Coming off a disastrous weekend in Texas, LSU has one more week of non-conference play to evaluate things before the all-encompassing grind of Southeastern Conference play begins.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Monday that his pitching staff is the “No. 1 concern” coming out of the weekend sweep at the hands of the Longhorns. Plenty of pitchers struggled in Austin, but the microscope once again appears to be on Friday night ace Zack Hess.
Hess has yet to throw a pitch in the sixth inning through his first three starts and is presently sporting an ERA of 5.68. Opponents are hitting a robust .296 against Hess and he’s issued eight walks and hit two batters through 12.2 innings of work.
Before the season, Mainieri called Hess the key to LSU’s season and stated his belief that Hess could develop into one of the best starters in the SEC. The coach acknowledged that the clock is ticking as LSU hosts Cal this weekend in the final series of non-conference play.
“We’re still hoping he can put it together and be more consistent, but we’re also running out of time,” Mainieri said. “The SEC schedule begins in a week and this will be his fourth start, and I think there’s a sense of urgency this weekend for him. He needs to go out there and show he can do what I believe he can do, but we also have to deal with reality.”
Consistency has always been the buzzword when it comes to Hess as a starting pitcher. When he’s on his game, he’s been dominant. But whether it has been tipping pitches, mechanical glitches or tightness after getting his by a line drive, there’s been too issues that lead to rough outings.
Professional scouts have long projected Hess as a reliever at the next level due to questions about his consistency over six-plus innings.
Mainieri acknowledged mechanics are a bigger concern than any notions of Hess being unable to handle the pressures of being a Friday night ace.
“I think he likes the pressure. I think he thrives under pressure,” Mainieri said. “I just think he has a difficult time sometimes repeating his delivery, so his control is not consistent. That’s always been the reason people think he’s more a reliever than a starting pitcher.”
Though he didn’t go into specifics, Mainieri said LSU could do some “experimenting” this weekend before settling on a weekend rotation for SEC play. He gave no indication that Hess’ role would change for the Cal series.
LSU lacks a clear cut alternative to Hess on Friday nights. Saturday starter Landon Marceaux sports an 8.53 ERA, Jaden Hill is shut down with arm soreness and both Eric Walker and Ma’Khail Hilliard are still building up pitch counts coming off injury.
If anything, Mainieri characterized the upcoming start as being critical for Hess. He’ll be facing a 6-4 Cal team that features reigning Golden Spikes Award winner Andrew Vaughn, who is hitting .529 with seven home runs and 18 RBI through 10 games.
“His first three starts haven’t gone exactly the way we would have envisioned it going, but I still have high hopes that it is going to start clicking for him,” Mainieri said. “If we’re having this same conversation a week from now, I’ll be more concerned.”
The coach continued: “I anticipated that Zack would have put it together a little bit quicker than he has this spring, but I’m not giving up on him. He’s got this weekend to prove to everybody that he should be in the rotation and a leader on this staff.”