Throughout his up-and-down LSU career, whether dealing in a crucial postseason game or getting hit all over the yard, Caleb Gilbert has always been a strike thrower.
That’s what made his mini meltdown in the ninth inning on Saturday’s 6-4 victory over Arkansas all the more puzzling.
Gilbert, brought in to protect a three-run lead, issued a four-pitch walk and uncorked a wild pitch before serving up an RBI single. He was pulled after falling behind in the count 2-0 on the next hitter only to be bailed out by Todd Peterson.
“It just snowballed on him the other night,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “You lose your feel, and the harder you try, the worse it gets. He’s a strike thrower. He always has been. That was such an outlier performance for him, so we’re just going to get back to who Caleb Gilbert is.”
LSU (28-20) expects nothing less from Gilbert as the junior right-hander will get the start against McNeese State (22-26) on Wednesday night, LSU coach Paul Mainieri announced. First pitch is set for 6:30 at Alex Box Stadium.
Mainieri made it abundantly clear that starting Gilbert is about what gives LSU the best chance to win, not trying to get a trusted arm straightened out after a rough outing. That luxury went out the window weeks ago for an LSU club that finds itself on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
With only eight games left in the regular season, and Mainieri is going to manage aggressively to stockpile all the victories he can get.
“We are going to pitch and do whatever gives us the best chance to win the game,” Mainieri said. “That’s priority No. 1.”
The coach didn’t want to divulge his entire pitching plan, but he said Gilbert will pitch multiple innings so long as he’s effective. This isn’t a return to the Johnny Wholestaff, get-everyone-some-work approach to midweek games.
“If Caleb Gilbert goes out there and pitches three great innings, I’ll be pretty satisfied,” Mainieri said. “Will he stop at three? I can’t promise you that. Will he pitch less than three? Only if he’s not pitching effectively.”
One of the relievers who’ll follow Gilbert is freshman right-hander Nick Storz, who is set to make his first appearance since March 21, when he worked his only inning of the season to this point.
Storz, who has battled shoulder soreness since undergoing surgery last fall, was cleared to return after pitching a simulated game on Saturday. The plan is for him to pitch one inning, Mainieri said, though it’s possible he could go two if he’s throwing well.
Dunn added that he’s seen the “legit stuff” that makes that makes Storz such a tantalizing option in his recent bullpen sessions. In his expert opinion, the Brooklyn native is ready for his return to live action.
“I want to see get up on the mound and feel confident that he’s healthy,” Dunn said. “Now, we’ve got to executive pitches. We’re trying to win a baseball game. We know his mound time has been limited, but I want him to let it go and trust who he is. I want to see him let his stuff go so he’ll know he’s healthy.”
The coach continued: “Tomorrow is critical. He’s ready to get back on the mound. He’s been wanting to get on the mound for quite some time now, but we had to make sure that he’s at the point where we’re not going to take any more steps back. Knock on wood, I think we’re there.”
THE SAGA CONTINUES
The same cannot be said about infielder Josh Smith.
Smith’s back feels better, Mainieri said, but the focus at the moment is on strengthening the core muscles in and around his back so as to prevent any more setbacks or spasms.
The coach has already ruled him out for this week, though LSU is still holding out hope that he’ll be able to return to the lineup sometime before this season ends.
“He’s going to be out this week,” Mainieri said. “I still have hope for the Auburn series, and if not the Auburn series, the SEC Tournament. So we’ll see. That’s all I know, honestly.”
Shortstop Hal Hughes has been a season-saving revelation with the way he’s stepped in for Smith defensively, but it was his bat that helped LSU take Sunday’s rubber match against Arkansas.
Hughes, who is hitting just .228 this season, went 3-for-4 with a couple of crucial knocks. His single sparked LSU’s four-run rally in the fifth inning and his RBI single in the sixth turned out to be the game-winning hit.
And what a time for a career afternoon: Hughes’ father, Georgia assistant coach Pete Hughes, was at the Box to see his son play for the first time since the Purple and Gold World Series scrimmages last fall.
Georgia finished up a three-game series at Missouri on Saturday, and the older Hughes hopped on a flight from Columbia to Baton Rouge in order to watch his son play.
“That was really cool,” Hal said. “It was the first time he got to see me play in a college baseball game. So to have that kind of a game and win that big of a game, it was awesome. I can’t describe it.”
McNeese State is starting senior right-hander Tyler Wesley (3-3, 4.75 ERA) against LSU on Wednesday night, according to a report from the Lake Charles American Press. Wesley has been a weekend starter for the Cowboys this season.
McNeese coach Justin Hill is bumping up his No. 2 starter in part because the Cowboys don’t play a conference series this weekend. Wesley has allowed 52 hits in 53 innings pitched this season with 47 strikeouts and 16 walks.
It’s an attention grabber for LSU, not the the Tigers needed any extra reasons not to take the Cowboys lightly. The in-state foe has defeated LSU in each of the past two seasons.
“The Cowboys have beaten us two years in a row, so I won’t have any trouble getting the attention of our players,” Mainieri said. “Justin Hill is doing a tremendous job over there … They’re pitching their No. 2 starter against us, so I’m sure they’re not holding anybody back and they’re going to go after us with everything they’ve got.”